Star Wars exhibit poorly thought through

sidenav_starwars_topIn late April, my wife and I and five kids headed up to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute to visit the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit. Running from February 9 to May 4, this show looked to be a natural for this belated celebration of my eldest son’s birthday. As it turned out, we all enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the kids.

Some obvious things occurred to me and my wife, and I thought I would try to summarize them here in case anyone from the Franklin Institute ever stumbles across this. Or for that matter representatives of its national sponsor – Bose – and its local sponsor – Exelon’s PECO. Or a Lucasfilm rep, or George Lucas himself for that matter. I’m sure all of those folks would like to make more money, right?

tmLogo To start with the most odious, Ticketmaster. I know little about them as a firm, but their website is a huge pain in the neck. It appears that much of the hassle is driven by their desire to filter out ‘bots who buy tickets for scalpers, and I applaud that, but the resulting capchas and time limits on each page makes for a confusing, infuriating web site. As soon as we bought our tickets, which was such a jerky, convoluted process it made SAT forms look cheerful in comparison, it became clear we had a scheduling conflict. When I called Ticketmaster to inquire about exchanging our tickets for another date – for which I imagined I would pay another convenience fee on top of the many that came along with the tickets – I was told exchanges were impossible with such bureaucratic glee that I imagine their phone operators get paid by the stock answer they dispense. This stock answer ignores the fact that this exhibit is about to close and that demand is low enough that there was no question of availability on the date to which I wanted to move.

To add insult to injury, when I was done buying the tickets, I learned that they would mail me the tickets for free or I could pay them for the chance to print them on my printer in my house with my toner. I’ve run into enough Windoze-only printing issues from airlines that I ruled that out and elected the ‘free’ mailing. You can guess what came next – the tickets never appeared. And yes, I know they are mailed in plain envelopes -we have opened all of the junk mail in our house for weeks, and they never turned up. When I called Ticketmaster to ask about missing tickets, the woman was very frank about this being a ubiquitous issue. She directed me to the Museum’s will call desk, where (final surprise) the young girl manning that desk was so confused by my desire to pick up tickets at the will call desk that she needed to call her supervisor for assistance. Of course to do that, she first had to have a co-worker explain to her how to use her walkie-talkie. Aiee!

Once we had managed to finagle tickets out of the will call desk, we headed in to the exhibit which was really a lot of fun. The costumes, the props, the models, and some storyboards alone would have worked for me, but the room was full of side exhibits that really appealed to the kids – especially the robotics stuff, which occupied them for more time than the Star Wars stuff, if that’s possible. One of the first things they kids encountered was a levitation demonstration that hinged on using magnets attached to Legos. The kids were supposed to build their own small speeders, not unlike Luke’s Landspeeder.

Here we arrive at one of the real disappointments of the show. My sons and their friends all love Legos and magnets, so they were eager to follow the directions and assemble their own maglev vehicles. Alas, the Legos that were available had been played with so much that the studs and cylinders were worn down to the point you could not make them stick together any more. After a lifetime of playing with Legos, I did not know this was possible, but I am here to tell you these bricks were shot. All the curators needed to do was spend another $40 on fresh bricks, and this would have been such a rewarding and entertaining part of the exhibit. Instead, the boys grew increasingly frustrated as we fought to find some combination of bricks that would stick together long enough to float a moment before falling apart. This cheapskate approach to an exhibit that is not inexpensive really left a bad taste in our mouth, and of course the only visible staff were teenaged, hourly employees, so there is no one to whom you can relay these concerns.

More amazing to me than the above, which is a problem with no revenue implications for the museum or its partners, was the dismal selection of junk at the gift shop. Anyone who has ever attended a museum with children knows how much kids love gift shops, especially if they know going into it that they will be allowed to pick something out. The dedicated gift shop at the end of the show – the one they compelled us to walk through in order to leave – was so awful that all five of the children we had with us left without voicing one single word of regret that we were not buying any of the items for sale. I realize we attended towards the end of the show’s run in Philadelphia, but the salesgirl assured me the array we saw was the same as it had been all throughout the exhbit. What junk! Leia keyrings, various pricey Halloween costumes (in April), and some Nerf-like lightsabers were about it. Where were the Star Wars Legos? The Kenner action figures and toys? The amazing DK books? Copies of the films on DVD and related video games?

We left this giant missed retail oportunity and headed to the museum’s main gift store. I was sure that this would have what we sought. Wrong. $55 action figure sets and one copy each of two different DK Star Wars books were the sole thematic items for sale. Both books were display copies that had been pawed over by thousands of people, and I am not prepared to buy five kids $55 action figure sets, so I left all that there. We bought the kids Star Wars books on Amazon and everyone was happy as a clam.

It baffles me how a place like the Franklin Institute, which has been there for a long time and surely knows a thing or two about sales, could permit their shelf space to be wasted like this. I have no idea how the finances of these exhibits work, but I guess that there’s a revenue sharing arrangement between Lucasfilm and the exhibition venues. It should be in both their interests to have an exciting array of gear, priced for a wide range of budgets, stocked and arrayed in a manner that enticed the patrons to buy souvenirs. We were not the only family looking around and shaking our heads over this – I really think this was the universal reaction among the parents who were there while we were.

P.S. A side benefit of the exhibit, which the kids missed entirely, was really too good not to mention. I have loved Star Wars so long now that I think of myself as a genuine Star Wars nerd. I answer way too many of my kids’ questions without resort to any reference materials (e.g., gaderffi sticks and other like minutiae). I was not prepared for the über-nerds drawn out by this exhibit, many of them younger than the original movies. Watching these guys quiver and shudder as they ogled Vader’s helmet and Fett’s blaster was really amusing. One of them even sported a girlfriend, who gamely photographed him next to every single case. I tried to think of some concise way to tell him to treasure this young woman for tolerating his visceral fanboy-ism, but there is no polite way to do so, and I left those words unsaid. It’s not every day that I end a day feeling less geeky than I did in the morning, but these guys reminded me how modest my Star Wars mania actually is.

P.P.S. My thanks to Gruber for his pictures. Many more here.

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