Following on from yesterday’s post, where I walked through the superb Horror Film exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington, which I visited while I was in town for Emerald City Comic Con, I’m exploring another of the museum’s exhibits today, the dedicated Fantasy: “Worlds of Myth and Magic” exhibit, which spanned film, comics, literature, and gaming.
Above you see the wild metallic exterior of the Museum of Pop Culture. Below, check out the excellent entryway to the Fantasy exhibit, hewn of wood and suggesting, of course, fairy tales, The Lord of the Rings, and many other seminal stories that have bridged into multi-media formats.
The door which opened the exhibit was so large and intentionally heavy (like a real medieval wooden door) that I only budged it with the help of a couple of other visitors to the museum, but the team effort set the right mood to start on this role-playing exhibit.
As we noted regarding the Horror Film exhibit, a focus on cataloguing and documenting types of stories and how they effect us was part of this exhibit as well. Setting forth “Archetypes of Fantasy” right at the outset laid out a pattern for the features in the exhibit, which would all be tagged with archetypal information. For instance, when costumes from a particular film and character were displayed, a plaque would remind you which archetype best suits that character in terms of fantasy stories.
One of the most winning aspects of the Fantasy exhibit was its willingness to embrace various mediums as part of the same tradition and suggest ways in which different forms of media interact. Original and process art pages from the comic FABLES were on display near the entry, a great entry into comics for fantasy fans who might not be aware such a fantasy-fuelled comic awaits their perusal.
But the exhibit itself moved through multi-media to make its impression on visitors. A large-scale dragon hid in the shadows, large enough to place you right inside the world of story.
And central to the entire display was a ginormous metal-scaled tree, with walkways running through it. Magical dragons and magical trees certainly do figure strongly in myths of many nations, and the tree seemed to form a kind of thematic pivot for the exhibit space, like the experience’s own world tree, hung with lanterns. The art participation on behalf of the museum generated this space, making it more interactive than simply presenting costumes and information. Visitors feel like they are walking through a fantasy land.
But there are many extraordinary items on display from the making of fantasy films in his exhibit, and guaranteed you’ll be surprised by what you find. Among others, there was a tiny refugee from The Dark Crystal.
The actual sword of Conan the Barbarian from the first film, which for the film industry, and for many viewers, is really where modern fantasy film-making starts.
Jumping into the modern and influential, we have a costume from Harry Potter, which if you look closely, is labelled with its archetype “Madman or Protective Godfather”. Well, characters can be both, usually having something to do with enchantment, as in this case.
But if you want influential early fantasy films, maybe we should go back to The Wizard of Oz. Seeing this witches hat from the original film really makes an impact as we realize how constructed these realities have been through basic costuming and set design, and have grown to incredible lengths of complexity over time. The exhibit also has other items from The Wizard of Oz.
However, our modern touchstones for filmic fantasy are certainly The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. The exhibit has both.
But would either of those film series really have existed without The Princess Bride? Looking through the exhibit helps the visitor conceive of chains of influence. The popularity of fantasy films hasn’t sprung up overnight, but has built on successful film-making over time, films that make us believe in alternate realities that we can see with our own eyes.
Probably the most surprising costumes on display in the Fantasy exhibit, for me, were those from the Highlander film, featuring the costumes of Connor MacLeod and his tutor Ramirez. While Highlander is certainly a fantasy film, it is a very different kind of fantasy than Lord of the Rings or even the Wizard of Oz, reminding us that fantasy has intricate sub-genres which we can explore.
The Fantasy exhibit, lastly, did not leave out the literary and gaming expressions of the genre. We had notes on original manuscripts, early editions, and film scripts to keep things tactile and down to earth.
Like this very early set of Dungeons & Dragons. From these basic gameplay tools have sprung great things.
Amusingly, there was also a period table of magic, which I’d certainly consider hanging in my living room.
This one was probably enough to stop most fantasy fans dead in their tracks–an early paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, and author J.R.R. Tolkien’s letter in reply to a fan, confirming the influence of Sinclair Lewis on his own writing.
Much of this literary and gaming material was actually contained within the base of the mythological metal tree, as were interactive displays for further exploring the fantasy genre.
While the Fantasy exhibit was probably a little less text-heavy and research-based than the Horror exhibit, that seemed appropriate. The truth is that most of us are exposed to myth, magic, and fairy tales through our own reading as children, or through encountering mythology during our schooling, and so we are more equipt to consider the differences between fantasy traditions and take part in choosing our own paths.
Horror film is a little more of a specific interest in terms of study, and one which we don’t encounter as easily in academics, yet. Though film studies is a massively growing field and things are changing. Like the Horror exhibit, the Fantasy exhibit at the Museum of Popular Culture is all-embracing, and can operate on a number of levels for different age groups and modes of experience. It’s very much what you make of it, too, encouraging you to walk your own path through fantasy, an agency that’s in keeping with the genre.