A Galaxy of Possibilities: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art Director of Archives Laela French talks Star Wars Identities

For F*** Magazine

F*** talks to the art historian and curator about bringing the blockbuster Star Wars exhibit to Singapore

From 30 January to 13 June 2021, Star Wars fans in Singapore can make the jump to hyperspace and into a galaxy far, far away at the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. Originally slated to open in April 2020, the exhibition was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has finally opened in Singapore

This exhibition contains over 200 artefacts, including costumes, props, concept art and models that were used in the production of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, the Clone Wars animated series and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The exhibition debuted in Montreal in 2012 and after touring cities including Paris, London, Brussels, Sydney and Tokyo, the exhibition makes its 12th and final stop in Singapore, before the objects on display return to the Lucasfilm Archives. Highlights of the exhibition include screen-used costumes of characters like Darth Vader, C-3PO, Boba Fett, Princess Leia, Padmé Amidala and Chewbacca. The exhibition also contains original concept art created by artists including Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, as well as models of ships like the Millennium Falcon, the Mon Calamari Home One, The Slave One and the Devastator Star Destroyer.

Visitors will not only be able to see these elements from the Star Wars saga before them, but also embark on a journey themselves. Each visitor wears an RFID wristband, and via ten interactive stations, will craft their own unique character within the Star Wars universe, choosing their character’s species, home planet, personality traits and making decisions when faced with various scenarios. At the end of their journey, visitors will meet the character created via these choices. Through the lens of Star Wars characters, the exhibit examines how our origins, the influences on us and the choices we make shape our identities.

Laela French at the launch of Star Wars Identities in Munich

Lucas Museum of Narrative Art Director of Archives Laela French was part of the team that initially designed the exhibit in 2012 and has overseen its world tour. Speaking to F*** over video call from Los Angeles, French shared her insights as an art historian and museum creator, discussed what the exhibit has in store for die-hard fans and neophytes alike, and explained why Star Wars has maintained its resonance and hold on popular culture across decades.

(The following interview has been edited for clarity)

F*** Magazine: Hi Laela, thank you for talking to us! Please let our readers know what your work as the Director of Archives at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art entails, and about your history with the Lucasfilm collection.   

LAELA FRENCH: I am the Director of Archives for the Lucasfilm archive collection, which is now under the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. What that really means is that I oversee and caretake all the props, models, costumes and concept art that were used in the making of Star Wars. Of course, the archive is more than just Star Wars. It includes Indiana Jones and any other film productions that George was involved with or was a producer for, such as Willow… 

Tucker, the Man and his Dreams?
 

Tucker, exactly, yes! So it’s a great collection, but of course it’s always all about Star Wars, and sometimes a little bit of Indiana Jones. It’s like a museum collection: we make sure that it’s stored correctly, we’re cataloguing it and caretaking it, we do research sometimes on the collection with partners or with Disney and Lucasfilm. And we mount and tour exhibitions, as Star Wars Identities is here in Singapore for you. And my background is in museums and collections care and exhibitions.  

Star Wars is a franchise that many people have different relationships with. How does this exhibit cater to fans of different ages who may have gotten into Star Wars at different points in their lives, or have varying degrees of intensity in being a fan of Star Wars? What are the levels at which different people can experience this exhibit? 

One of the things that I love so much about this collection, and I’ve been with it for so long, is that it is so meaningful to so many people around the world, it’s woven into our cultural and social fabric. We can communicate through Star Wars language and iconography. Doesn’t matter if you’re eight or 80, at this point, everyone knows about Star Wars at some level, even if they haven’t seen the movies.

We always mount our exhibitions with education and museum visitors in mind. With our Star Wars fans, we’re always wanting to put surprises in the exhibition for our super-nerd fans, because we know that they know so much already, so we always want to give them a little extra surprise. But we always think about the non-Star Wars fan who’s coming to an exhibition at the museum, so we want to make sure that even if you’re not a fan, this exhibit is still for you. It’s like if you were going to a Monet exhibition or a fine art exhibit, you didn’t know about the artist, but you’re going in to learn something. We also design our exhibitions so that different age groups can really explore and enjoy it. So I always say, kids ages eight to 80. But truthfully, I’ve seen four-year-olds go through this exhibit and they recognise the characters in Star Wars, they just see Yoda and they’re instantly engaged. So it’s a very generous exhibition for all kinds of people, all different ages, whether you’re a superfan or you haven’t even seen the films yet. 

How does this exhibit combine the experience of entering the world of Star Wars, through the “identity” component, with looking at the movies from a real-world behind-the-scenes perspective? 

What we’re looking at in this exhibition is the science of human identity and trying to answer the question, “What makes humans unique, what makes us each unique?” and we worked with a very deep and exciting group of scientists [in the fields of] psychology biology, genetics, across the gamut – anyone touching on human identity in some capacity we had on our committee, and we debated how to organise this using Star Wars. This exhibition is really built on the idea that we can tell the story of human identity through Star Wars.

We can break down personalities into five basic groups, and this is science, not fantasy stuff here, [it’s] psychotherapy. Those [types] are really well defined by Star Wars characters so we can find someone that’s very neurotic in C-3PO and see someone who’s brave and maybe a little reckless in Han Solo. The idea is that fans will recognise Star Wars characters, and we can talk about that what’s underneath that character and identifying who they are and what they represent.

And then you get to actually do your own Star Wars identity quest through the exhibition, creating your own Star Wars avatar. In that sense, you’re answering these different questions learning about the science of human identity in building your own Star Wars character. What I love is adults tend to answer the questions honestly and earnestly; they’re really serious about it. Kids are just like, “I’m all bad. I’m all good,” they’re just having Fantasyland, but they’re still learning while playing and that is just one of the best things about the exhibition. 

Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. We often talk about George Lucas’ original vision, but many artists and technicians over the decades have helped bring that vision to life. Which artists, whose work is displayed in this exhibit, would you single out for their contributions? 

Well, I have to start with Ralph McQuarrie. To me, there’s no Star Wars without George Lucas, and there’s no Star Wars without Ralph McQuarrie also. We have a heavy display in this exhibition, we have over 100 pieces of art and so much of it is Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings. His visual designs for the different planet scenes really created the look and feel of Star Wars from the get-go. So, I have to say he put the biggest mark on Star Wars feeling and looking like the way Star Wars does. He was behind the design of Darth Vader, he was behind the design of so many characters in the first go-around: Chewbacca, for example. Even Han Solo in his character design, he really put a touchstone all of that. After that, I would think that it’s Joe Johnston right behind him, creating a lot of ship designs and some of the other characters. So those two artists really created the visual look of Star Wars that we know and understand today. 

Schematic by Joe Johnston

Star Wars is a gateway in many ways; fans have discovered the different mythological, literary and film influences on Star Wars by starting there and going backwards. Do you hope that visiting this exhibit might be a gateway for kids to discover the artistic influences on Star Wars? 

I really hope so. And while this is really an exhibit on science and identity, we still are pulling right back into the hero’s journey and mythology. And so kids get really excited about that, and it leaves a little bit of a seed in them, then they’re going to go back and realise how much mythology influences all the stories that we’re telling, from the early days of Homer and The Odyssey and The Iliad. Then you go on over to the Norse mythology, like Ragnarok, those stories, and how there’s the same thread through all of them, the hero’s journey is really central to so much of our human experience. On the other side, they’re really excited by what they see in terms of design, that kind of artistry, the paintings, or the model-making or the costume design, which is exquisite, I mean truly, it’s just the best thing about Star Wars. I hope it inspires a whole new generation of artists and filmmakers and storytellers as well. 

I think there can still be a snobbishness about art, this divide between “high” and “low” art, which is why I love the approach of pop culture as a gateway into exploring different art forms. As someone who has worked in the worlds of fine art and of pop culture, how does something like Star Wars bridge those worlds? 

Well, I think that Star Wars not only bridges it but hopefully just obliterates the gap entirely. George Lucas is a filmmaker and a storyteller, and he’s also an art collector. Now he’s building a museum for visual storytelling and art collecting, so for him, it was never snobbery or elite art, it was always storytelling. I think what he’s doing through Star Wars, and through all the visual art is at the centre, it’s the story that you see in the artwork. If that painting tells a story, and it resonates for you, it counts, and there is no high art or low art. It’s what each visitor gets out of the painting in front of them. And you might get a whole masterpiece out of one story or painting and another person next to you goes “meh” and it doesn’t resonate for them and that doesn’t make it good or bad. It’s just that the story doesn’t work for that person, and they go and find a different painting that maybe tells a great story for them. So I think that’s for me what I hope Star Wars has contributed to high or low art and sort of changing the whole conversation and getting rid of the terms “high” and “low”. And just coming to the idea of “Do you enjoy this art?” If you don’t, it’s okay. We don’t all love every movie ever made, right? Every year, I go “I love that movie; didn’t love that movie.” It’s okay. 

Star Wars fans don’t even love every Star Wars movie ever made.  

Exactly, that’s right. We all have our favourite moments and our least favourite ones. It’s not “good” or “bad”. It’s just enjoy what you enjoy, and then you move on from there. 

You worked at the Autry Museum. Can you shed some light on the specific influences that the Western genre has on Star Wars, as can be seen from the objects on display at this exhibit? 

I mean, honestly, Star Wars is a space Western, right? And George Lucas, who’s the storyteller of Star Wars, he grew up a fan of cinema, he would go and watch all kinds of movies, and he’s a fan of the Western serials that were popular when he was growing up. And that idea is that you go to the theatre, and you’d watch the movie, and then it would leave you on a cliffhanger. And then you’d be waiting for the next week to go back and see what happened. He grew up on all of that kind of cinema.

And it’s not that he set out to make this a Western in space, per se, but he wanted to do this adventure and journey, and part of what his cinematic background was infused with was those Western stories. But there is something similar between the Western and the Kurosawa films from Japan. These other stories that are told, they all share a similar underlying adventure, where the lone wolf rolls into town and becomes the good guy. That’s what Han Solo is, and he’s your character in Star Wars that really pulls in the identity of the American West. And right down to his gunslinger holster and his Western shirt and everything, he really could be dropped into a Western film and fit right in. I love that. 

One of the things I love about Star Wars is that it’s the first successful pastiche franchise. It pulls from all of these varied influences that impacted George Lucas in one way or another, but synthesises them in an interesting way. It’s at once very familiar and very novel.  

I think a lot of people who hit that level of artistry and have that reach, like Star Wars has for 40+ years, is because it’s not just one single note. He didn’t just do one thing that made Star Wars amazing. He did many things that pulled together made it off the charts, kind of groundbreaking. The visual effects, right? That right there could have made a great movie, but then it wasn’t just these groundbreaking visual effects. It was the design in Star Wars that was also amazing, and completely fresh and new. And he didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s a good enough design. Let’s go on,” he kept pushing and pushing his artists until he was like, “Yes, that’s what I want.” He had this visual aesthetic that was very, very strong. And then it was based on mythology and the hero’s journey, which is a timeless story that resonates for any generation, so it wasn’t just a movie that worked great in the 70s but that doesn’t resonate anymore, it still resonates even today. Those are just some of the few things that he did that amalgamated together to make Star Wars just become what you call a classic, right? It’s something that transcends time and lives on and is enjoyed through many generations. 

I imagine the Lucasfilm archives must be like the warehouse at the end of Raiders. What is it like in that building, and was there any item in the archives that really surprised you?  

You know, it doesn’t quite look like the end of Raiders. But we used to have a warehouse for the while we were making Episodes, I, II and III [of] Star Wars that totally looked like the end of Raiders and it made us laugh, so in a way, yes, we have that. We have several storage locations. So the main collection’s at Skywalker Ranch, and I think what’s really surprised me is how much material archivally almost from the first memo to the final film shot, how much material it takes to make a film – how much artwork and artistry, and how many artists, from sculptors to painters to costume designers and costume makers, how many different artisans it took to make Star Wars [into] Star Wars today, and how many new inventions that were pushed into Star Wars to make Star Wars what it is that we see today. That’s reflected in the artwork in the collection. So when I see the collection together, and I’m like, “There’s that guy who made that and then there’s the lady that designed and built that,” and it just keeps going and there’s hundreds and hundreds of people. And a lot of film is like that. It’s not just Star Wars, but I think Star Wars beautifully represents the many artists that it takes to tell a beautiful cinematic story. 

One of the things I love about film is that you’re watching a two-hour-long movie, but you’re not seeing the amount of work that goes into it and the iterative process on the way there. That’s for you to discover later. There will be visitors who will look at the concept art of a garden gnome named “Minch” and be surprised that that’s how Yoda began.  

Absolutely, and we have the garden gnome artwork. I think that will be one of the things that will surprise people that come to the exhibition, and even if they’re not Star Wars fans, is seeing the visual journey from first sketch to final character design because really, we’re talking about identity. So part of the exhibition is exploring the identity of all the characters in Star Wars – not everyone, but the primary ones. So you get to study Jabba, from his first sketch and all the different little maquettes. And I love the one where he looks like Fu Manchu with his big moustache, all the way to what he finally looked like in the end. And of course, Yoda is a great one for that. But so is Chewbacca, how Chewbacca came to be who he is as a character. It’s the idea of design and not stopping too soon and keep pushing and pushing and pushing. I think that’s a great visual lesson for so many students today, whether they’re art students, or writers or storytellers or even scientists, that sometimes it takes a lot of effort and layers and layers of repetition till you get to the right answer, whether it’s you’re solving a scientific problem, or whether you’re solving an artistic design problem. 

Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The making of Star Wars is so storied that the mythology is not just within that fictional universe, but the real-life behind-the-scenes process has become mythologised in a way, too.  

It’s true. And because there’s such a worldwide fan base, sometimes that mythology gets put into dogma [laughs]. So we always have a little challenge here and there, when we would put something on display, and then fans would get upset because it kind of challenged their understanding of the Star Wars universe that they had come to adopt into their world. So we’re always a little cognisant of that. We always want it to be celebratory, and celebrate the fans and celebrate especially the uber-fans who have been with Star Wars since they were kids, and they’re bringing it to their kids and their grandkids. But at the same time, not every single thing is known about every single aspect of how Star Wars got made.

You know, there’s still some mysteries out there that we’re still being asked, and I don’t know the answer to that. When we’re doing research for different productions, I’m like, “I don’t know the answer to that.” So there’s still mysteries out there. And honestly, I kind of love that. I love that it’s an archive that’s so deep and rich, we have production notes, and binders of production designer notes, that in 100 years, in 200 years, they will have film curatorial historians coming through and still writing new things about Star Wars, even though it’s been 100 years, because not everything is known. So to me, that’s exciting. 

As you mentioned, there are fans who can be very fixed in the way they look at Star Wars, and in what Star Wars means to them. What is the best mindset to have, stepping into Star Wars Identities? 

Honestly, I think the best way to come into any exhibition but Star Wars Identities, especially, is if you’re coming in as a fan, to go back to why you’re a fan. What did that moment feel like? Tap back into that eight-year-old kid, if that’s what it was, and remember that and play, come in and just have fun, because it’s really what exhibitions are for. It’s supposed to inspire and bring joy, and, and be open. In that sense, you’re now opening to the experience ahead of you. The only time I’ve had challenges is when when a visitor will come in with a preconceived notion and expectation, and that that’s where they may find disappointment. But when we turn the tables around and invite them to remember what it is that they love about Star Wars, then that all opens right back up. And honestly, I’ve never really had to do that but more than one or two times. Everyone tends to go right back to why they love Star Wars, especially in the room with all the objects. 

For the non-Star Wars fan coming to Star Wars identities, I think that they’ll be pleasantly surprised to be learning about human identity through the characters of Star Wars, even if they don’t know the films, in a way they’re going to come out knowing a little bit about who those characters are. And what we have found in touring this exhibition is that it’s the non-Star Wars fans who go “Oh my god, I kind of didn’t want to see this movie, or I missed my moment, I got turned off on it for whatever reason, or it’s not my kind of movie, I’m not at all going, ‘Oh my god, I gotta go watch this movie!'” And then we get these letters that go “I had no idea. I just loved the films, but I didn’t watch them until after I went through the exhibition.” So I would say just come and have a good time.

Creating your own Star Wars identity through the exhibition was one of the [most fun] things I’ve ever done. Let me tell the story: when we were mounting this exhibit, it was 2012. I started my job with this collection not as a Star Wars fan. Not everyone believes that, but it’s true. I’m a museum nerd, I’m more of a museum caretaker. Not to say I don’t love the films, but I didn’t come in as like the uber-fan; I’m more of an art historian. So when I when we were doing the exhibit, I helped curate it and design it, and when we were installing it in Montreal for the first venue, we finally got to test the identity quest. And I did it and I was giggling like a five-year-old, going “Oh my god, that was so much fun. I’m gonna go do it again.” I did it 17 times. I just went and had a blast. And I realised, “Oh my god, we did it.” All of our partners, everyone who worked on this exhibit, we totally had a home run because I was having a blast. And I’m like the most jaded [person], too close to the project, too critical of all the details. And I was just like, “Forget it, I’m gonna go do it again,” and I had so much fun. When I got to share it with my kids and my family. They were the same way. They were like, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done!” And again, they put up with me being with the collection. So I think just come and have a good time, then enjoy it. It’s so much fun. It’s such a fun, fun exhibit. It’s really my favourite thing we’ve ever done. 

This exhibit was originally going to launch in Singapore in April 2020, and then Circuit Breaker happened, and it’s been in storage for nine months. Walking through the exhibit was surreal, because we’re all wearing masks, and there’s safe distancing and more frequent disinfection, but it’s a real, largely uncompromised museum experience. What do you think the future holds for museum spaces, post-COVID-19?  

I’m more hopeful. And I love that you guys call it “Circuit Breaker”; I had never heard that before. At least we don’t use. We don’t use that term in America, that’s neat, I like that. I think because it’s just a circuit break, that will get restored. I don’t think we’re going to be stuck in this particular style. I do think things will have changed forever forward from COVID-19. I do feel like that ability to work from home for so many corporations around the world and the flexibility; it’s creating a lot of silver linings. It’s been obviously a challenging time for all of the world, but I think there will be some benefits coming from it. For exhibitions, I feel like we will restore back to how we were before. I don’t see us always stuck in paranoid land of a pandemic. Pandemics do end. Historically, throughout time, they all come to an end, they all come to an end in a two-to-three-year window. I do feel like when it comes to an end, we’re going to have a slow transition back to normalcy. We’re all gonna be a little bit like, “Oh, is it really, really, really over?” but I think we will get there. And then we’ll be back to our crowded galleries and having human experiences the way we used to be with a big, huge sigh of relief. So, I have faith in that and I’m so grateful for all the effort that the Singapore ArtScience museum have brought to this to make this work during COVID. It was Herculean, really for all the teams, but we did it and we’re really thrilled that in Singapore, you guys can have a semi-normal moment going to the exhibition and that’s really a great way to end this exhibit. 

Finally, as an art historian, what do you imagine someone with your job, 200 years in the future, would say about Star Wars 

Well, because we’re going to have this amazing Star Wars archive, as part of the Lucas Museum of narrative art in Los Angeles. The 200-year future with my job, living in Los Angeles caretaking this collection, what are they going to say about Star Wars? They’re going to say that it was one of the most seminal, groundbreaking, moments in cinematic history, like Shakespeare to Elizabethan England. The after-effects will be much better seen and understood in 200 years than we are in the only 40-year window. But if I’m looking at it as a trajectory, with a rocket trail, I see it only continuing and growing and especially now in the hands of Disney, as a global franchise, and with theme parks and Star Wars Land, like I don’t see it slowing down and I don’t see it coming to a full stop. I always see it as woven into our social fabric and vernacular and vocabulary. I just see that 200 years from now they’re going to be really looking at all of the effects of what George Lucas created with his Skywalker story. And in a positive light, I just feel like it’s gonna be really meaningful just like what Shakespeare did. I’m not saying Star Wars is equal to Shakespeare for the literary snobs in the world, I’m just saying the impact will be same felt. They’re already holding classes at universities on Star Wars. So I just see that going more in in the cinema I think cinema has always been looked at as lowbrow. We talked about highbrow-lowbrow, right? I think cinema is going to be seen as a new way of telling stories in high fashion, whatever that really means. Maybe we’ll lose that terminology altogether. 

Visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum/exhibitions/star-wars-identities.html for tickets and more details

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