Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination 

Franklin Institute Science Museum Philadelphia, PA 

Opening Day - February 9, 2007 

Article and Photography by Jeffrey A. Gouse (SithLord0498)


We have no shared vision of what the future looks like.  To talk about our future, we needed a depiction of a technologically advanced society that was familiar to a broad audience.  It would also have to be pretty exciting, something that would energize people and make them want to learn more about things that, at first blush, are pretty esoteric.  We needed something that also gave us fertile ground to explore the implications of technology decisions. 

What we needed was Star Wars. 

            -Ed Rodley, Boston Museum of Science 

With that realization, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination was born with a single goal: to examine the possibilities of the future through the prism of the Star Wars universe.  In order to do that, the exhibit (as first conceived) is divided into the two major themes of transportation and robotics, and it utilizes a cornucopia of material that include props and costumes from the saga, real world technology, theoretical models, and interactive workstations that allow visitors the chance to experiment first-hand with the concepts being presented. 

First opening to the public on October 27, 2005 in Boston, it has since become a traveling exhibit to major museums across the United States.  This year, it is taking up a three month residence at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. 

What follows is a first-hand account from the opening day of the exhibit.  Because of the sheer volume of material available to visitors, keep in mind that this is hardly a comprehensive account. 

8:30 am – 1:00 pm:  “Voyage to a Galaxy Far, Far Away” 

In addition to my job at, I’m also a fairly active member of the Pennsylvania Star Wars Collecting Society ( as is my wife, Michele.  Traditionally, each half of the state holds a meeting in the beginning of each month with a member volunteering to host.  As luck, fate, or the Force would have it, the date for our February Eastern meeting was scheduled for the 9th—the opening day for this exhibit.  And even more fortunate, our host resides in Willow Grove, a mere half hour away from the Franklin Institute. 

It was an easy decision for our gracious host, Brad, to take the initiative and coordinate a massive group trip to get an up close and personal experience with the Star Wars universe.  In the end, our group exceeded thirty people—members as well as their families—and the logistics were firmly in place. 

The night before the trip was spent in anticipation, and it was enough to keep me awake the entire night.  Thank the heavens for caffeine.  Night turned to daybreak, and final preparations were made for the 100 mile journey from the Wilkes-Barre area of Northeastern Pennsylvania to Willow Grove.  Camera…check.  Several sets of batteries…check.  Snacks and drinks…better head to Wal-Mart first.  A trip to the ATM was in order as well. 

By 8:30 am, Michele and I had our supplies and a healthy supply of cash (which would turn out to be grossly inadequate once confronted with the merchandising), and we were on the turnpike.  Naturally, no trip would be complete without driving headlong into some wicked winter weather.  Snow squalls.  High wind gusts.  Ice glazing the narrow highway.  Undeterred, we drove through the Poconos and the Allentown region, undeterred by Mother Nature. 

In a mere hour and forty, we coasted toward our staging area.  Steadily, more PSWCS members arrived.  We chatted and we joked and we anxiously awaited our departure time. 

At 11:45, we broke up into our carpooling groups, and the caravan was on its way toward Philadelphia.  Michele and I rode with two other members, one being our youngest member at a mere 17 years of age.  Family Guy quotes were tossed around with a crackling energy, fueled by our excitement.  Of course, the “Blue Harvest” episode was a topic of conversation.  As suburbs gave way to urban sprawl, we knew it wouldn’t be long. 

And then we ran straight into the frustrating reality that is Philadelphia city parking.  I’m reluctant to discuss it in any real depth as we need to keep the language clean here.  Needless to say, Michele and I were happy to have been the passengers in this case.  Twenty minutes, two parking lots, and a couple bumped cars later, we locked up and walked the several blocks to the Franklin Institute. 

What we saw was breathtaking.  (At this point, let me just say that Michele and I don’t get to take many trips and/or vacations like this, so forgive me when I sound a little over-enthusiastic).

Once inside, we steadily made our way past the Franklin monument in the foyer and into the main concourse of the Institute.  In here, one will find the Information desk, the entrance to the Tuttleman IMAX theater, and naturally the museum’s gift shop—the surprisingly large Sci-Store. 

Of course, subversive marketing was in full force here.  The entire front of the Sci-Store was filled with various Star Wars merchandise ranging from trinkets such as keychains and buttons to Kotobukiya models and Rubies replicas.  And not surprisingly, the entrance to the ramp leading up to the exhibit was right in front of the store.


None of us had time to fall victim just yet as the line moved at a brisk pace, and we tendered our tickets.  Thankfully, there were no problems gaining entrance.  Our tickets were for a 12:30 entrance time, and it was now a little past one o’clock.  Mind you, this did not mean anyone was rushed through the exhibit or allotted a set time.  It was merely a way to stagger out the crowds based upon what the museum figured would be the average time a person would stay on the exhibit floor. 

Once we made our way past the gate keepers, we turned a corner and found ourselves at the end of a line that sloped up a long ramp and turned left to backtrack down an equally long hallway on the next floor.  At the end of that hallway was the exhibit entrance.  While first sight of this line was daunting, it moved surprisingly fast.  In addition, there was plenty to keep one’s attention.  The ramp ran parallel to a multi-level wall of windows that allowed a broad view of the outside.  By the time you would get sick of looking at the city, chances are you were at the top of the ramp and curving back to walk down the hallway. 

During this final stretch, the exhibit pre-emptively began your education in all things Star Wars via a set of approximately twenty full-color wall plaques that lined the hallway.  Each plaque bore a vibrant color picture from the saga along with a nugget of behind-the-scenes information.  Hardcore fans of the saga will undoubtedly know all of these already, but it served as an interesting time-killer for casual or uninitiated visitors.

Upon reaching the entrance, we were reminded that there would be no re-entry allowed to the exhibit.  Even stepping out for a quick run to the bathroom required one to procure a bathroom pass from one of the museum’s security guards. 

With that caveat clearly understood, the doors opened… 

1:00 pm – 2:30 pm:  “Where Science Meets Imagination” 

…and the Star Wars universe suddenly became not so “far, far away” 

Upon entering the dimly-lit exhibit floor of the Mandell Theater, the first sight our adjusting eyes fell upon was a four-man squad of fully-uniformed X-Wing pilots (the 501st Legion had a healthy-sized presence at the festivities) posing for pictures next to a nearly three-foot long X-Wing Starfighter prop.  And in the glass class on our right was a large-scale prop of Sebulba’s podracer.  Sadly, Anakin’s racer was absent from the proceedings as were many other pieces one would’ve expected to see.

(Please click the thumbnails below for the full size view)

But lingering here and taking in the sights were not possible for two reasons.  First, there was a steady yet constant influx of visitors pouring into the exhibit, and this was the only place where one would feel pressured to move on.  Second, the first major set piece was a mere ten feet away, brightly lit, and free of any glass trappings… 

The full-scale version of Luke Skywalker’s iconic Landspeeder.

There it was.  Every weathered panel, every chiseled edge, and every inspiration of a young child’s imagination was sitting there, a monument to the childhood that none of us ever truly left behind.  Bearing numerous reminders and admonitions to “Please Do Not Touch”, the temptation was great as it was within an arm’s reach.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that I hunkered down in a corner and stole a quick brush of the fingers—just for a fleeting moment.  But in that moment, it all became real to me.  This was as close as I had ever come to being a part of the Star Wars universe, and for a fan, that is the greatest feeling in the world. 

As for the nuts and bolts of the set-up, the Landspeeder display had several components that one would find at nearly every open-air display and glass case in this exhibit.  There was the obligatory full-color plaque that described the item (name, prop/costume/model/etc., Episode title), its place in the Star Wars universe, and (frequently) a quick blurb on how it correlated to the real world.  There was also a video screen displaying close-captioned footage from the film and interviews with those involved in that item’s inclusion.  While not present on this display (to the best of my recollection), audio could be heard at other displays through a cone-shaped device that one would press against their ear and switch on via a large push button on the display.

As an addition to the main Landspeeder display, the smaller shooting prop was included in a glass case, complete with its crudely-made puppet passengers (which, from a distance, were indistinguishable from the actors and droids).  Prior to this, the closest picture I had seen of this particular Landspeeder prop was the small picture shown in the From Star Wars to Indiana Jones: The Best of the Lucasfilm Archives book, first published in 1994.  Seeing it up close, however, was something amazing because the figures truly were made haphazardly, serving as a reminder in this CGI-laden Prequel Trilogy era that Star Wars’ roots were in the art of optical illusions and shoe-string budgets.  While the Prequels demonstrate the potential of imagination, these relics remind us of the power of innovation.

(Please click the thumbnails below for the full size view)


Moving on from this main display, we entered the main floor of the exhibit.  The showroom was not vast, but the arrangement of the displays created paths that snaked throughout the room, intersecting and diverging at multiple points.  It was a prime example of utilizing space to its maximum potential whilst minimizing overcrowding.  With only a few exceptions around the more popular displays, one never felt as though they were being squeezed into cramped spaces, which added to the enjoyment of the event. 

The downside of this arrangement, however, is that the exhibit really didn’t feel as though it adhered to the original intention of being organized into the two major themes of transportation and robotics.  Vehicles—cinematic, real, and theoretical alike—were scattered throughout the exhibit floor.  The robotics fared better as they were concentrated in the rear sections of the showroom and incorporated a good mix of science fiction and science fact.  Some displays, though, were clearly there simply to satisfy the fans of the saga.  The armory case is the clearest example of such ancillary additions.  On the other hand, it looked as though a third theme had been added to the overall exhibit, which explored how people interact with and survive in various environments.  Hoth was a prime example of this theme as arctic biomes require substantial adaptation. 

While the exhibit itself may have lacked total cohesion, I will attempt to arrange the reminder of this section as thematically as possible.  For a more comprehensive discussion of how Star Wars has influenced and has been reflected in the real world, the companion book to the Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit is the place to go.  It is a collection of articles written by various scientists that explores many of the themes in much greater detail than can be found in a museum exhibit.  It can currently be found for under $13.00 at 

Now without further ado, we will get into the specifics of the exhibit...


Click Here for Part 2!