Fiction and science can be a strange mix. While authors will occasionally bend the laws of physics for the sake of narrative convenience, the most successful stories inspire their fans to apply authentic science to the fiction. This is the tack chosen by Star Wars Identities, a science-via-fiction exhibit currently on display at Edmonton’s Telus World of Science. Despite flirting with content and conceptual connections that could easily be controversial, Identities is gracefully assembled, technologically flawless, and a faithful tribute to the Star Wars universe.
It’s no coincidence that the birth of the science centre coincides with the massification of higher education. While public lectures to a learned elite have been around for thousands of years, it’s only in the last fifty years that putting the scientific method into the hands of the public has been universally seen as a good thing. The first North American science centres (San Francisco’s Exploratorium and a small collection of others) only appeared in the 1960s, with conceptual forefathers stretching back to Berlin in the late 1800s. They were revolutionary for their mission of accessibility — putting the fundamental components of the scientific method into the hands of visitors. This is the explicit role of the science centre and what differentiates it from universities or museums: not to teach facts, or to build deep understandings of new concepts, but rather to provide experiential learning that focuses on empowering structured curiosity, reinforcing previously learned concepts with direct, real-world examples.
There’s a creation myth in the science centre community that’s developed into something of a legend. It tells of a woman who had a broken lock. She visited San Francisco’s Exploratorium, and because of what she experienced during her visit, she felt confident to pry open the lock and fix it. The story is apocryphal, but the meaning is clear. The goal is not learning. It is empowerment — sending visitors away feeling more capable, feeling that science and empiricism are things that they can grapple with and apply to their own lives.
And this is where Identities is unique. The science of identity is not one that lends itself well to bite-sized experimentation. Identity changes slowly, is inherently complex, and poorly understood by the general public. Many of the key concepts are often politicized and can be very personal — such as an individual’s style of parenting or, even more contentiously, race.
Instead of using real-world examples, Identities pulls an elegant bait-and-switch, using the archetypes from Star Wars as microcosms through which to examine ideas like childhood trauma. The empire’s politics, genocides, factions and lore are powerful tools for the introduction of sensitive topics precisely because they are fictitious — and therefore politically neutral. Even the final moments of the exhibit, in which I chose to accept the emperor’s offer and fall to the dark side, was gracefully neutered of any real-world connotations. It was a choice, but it was not evil. Just a coincidence of chance, impulse and will. So your eight-year-old son could emerge from Identities as a Wookie Sith dictator. What parent wouldn’t be proud of his success? Substitute in real-word examples and you’d have a very different picture.
By drawing on the rich universe of six feature films, a handful of stand-alones (such as The Clone Wars), and even the vast literature accompanying the series, each character is given a depth of personality and history far greater than what is communicated in episodes I-VI. This was the most surprising element — the exhibit gave several well-known characters more depth than they would otherwise have, by drawing visitors into their history and enriching their representation with background from dozens of sources.
Identifying with characters is an incredibly powerful human behaviour. The phenomenon is all the more powerful when that character is one of your own creation. As you progress through the exhibit, you choose the attributes of a hypothetical Star Wars character, gradually giving him or her a backstory and building various components of the individual’s personality and identity. At the end you’re presented with your avatar, which is impressively visualized. Quite frankly, it’s awesome. Check out my Bith Sith Bounty Hunter.
This is far from the first exhibit to use this device. The DC holocaust museum, for example, distributes cards that assign visitors the identity of a Nazi concentration camp survivor. The idea is that the visitor would connect with the individual on their card, and experience a more immersive journey through a historical genocide, learning only at the end whether that person had survived. Of course, even the best designed exhibits can overshoot their targets. A friend of mine reported that her aunt now believes that she is the reincarnation of her holocaust identity.
There’s also the question of whether fiction is an appropriate medium for the communication of science. After all, Hollywood hardly has a reputation for accurate portrayal of scientific theory. Identities is not, however, a typical “the science of …” exhibit (c.f. the science of Harry Potter). There’s a great temptation to use space travel as a segue into magnetic levitation or some other tenuously connected concept. It’s very refreshing to see a fictitious world used to communicate concepts that are integral to the real world. The character building in Star Wars is based upon classic archetypes — which makes them fertile ground to discuss the concepts behind those archetypes and to debunk the many stereotypes and misconceptions that often accompany issues of identity.
So why not? If fiction is used to facilitate this kind of empirical empowerment, then the role of fiction as a tool to attract audiences and to construct familiar examples is admirable. In one sense, for most of us, the fictitious environment of Star Wars is no less of an abstraction than the technology that makes capacitive touchscreens possible. Neither one is entirely understood by its consumers. Why should one be a more appropriate subject matter for science centres than the other?
At the core there’s something revolutionary about bringing social sciences into science centres and addressing them as explicit disciplines. I never thought I would see concepts from occupational therapy in a science centre. The deeply interdisciplinary nature of Identities is exactly what E.O. Wilson called for in his now-famous Consilience — a complete disregard for disciplinary borders. Perhaps one day we’ll have an exhibit ambitious enough to discuss Star Wars in the context of folklore, narrative, subjective fictions.
Until then, Identities is engaging, elegantly informative, and a hell of a lot of fun.
Special thanks to Dana Schloss and Katherine Ziff of Telus Spark in Calgary, both of whom were invaluable in writing this review. AE also graciously acknowledges the support of the Edmonton Telus World of Science, and the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation in this review.