EMP Museum, formerly Science Fiction Museum
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is one of the richest men in the world. He likes to spend money on his hobbies, and two of his hobbies are rock 'n' roll and science fiction. The result: Seattle's trippy Experience Music Project, and nestled within it on two floors -- an attraction in its own right -- the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.
The actual "Hall of Fame" part is tucked into a small corner, with faces of the famous embedded in glowing blocks of blue glass. When we visited, not many people paid attention to it. We understand why. Why look at SF pioneers Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov when your eyes can be dazzled by a full-size animatronic Ninja Turtle, or an alien seed pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
Think of an iconic, original prop from a sci-fi movie or TV show, and it's probably in the museum collection: a Bill Shatner captain's chair from Star Trek; the "Danger, Will Robinson!" robot from Lost in Space; the metal skull and arm of the T-800 Terminator. Allen's bottomless bank account has tractor-beamed many rare sci-fi knickknacks, such as a 1975 Bionic Bigfoot action figure, and the gnarly Tree of Life from the already obscure The Fountain (2006).
We asked Jasen Emmons, the museum's curatorial director, if one item in the museum stood apart from the rest in popularity. "Darth Vader's helmet," he said. The helmet is displayed behind a glass door, and Jasen said that "people were running straight into the door, they were so excited. We had to put a big graphic on the glass to let people know: first you come through the door, then you can see the helmet."
He sighed. "There's no resisting the Dark Side of the Force."
The museum depends almost entirely on TV and movies for its images of science fiction. "That's what can be collected," Jasen said. "It's all literature-based, but how do you show literature?" The museum does try, interspersing in its displays first editions of classic books such as Fahrenheit 451 and Neuromancer among the flying saucer models and flimsy space-girl miniskirts. But the props get the attention.
The weapons "Armory" exhibit, for example, is packed with so many ray guns, atomic blasters, and plasma rifles that it's tough to identify where they all came from. The evolution of Star Trek phasers alone gets its own display, with models ranging from 1966 to 1991. In other cases we glimpsed Robin William's Ork helmet from Mork and Mindy; Sean Young's shoulder-padded suit from Blade Runner; and a hairy-armed Planet of the Apes promotional wax figure of Charlton Heston that you might mistake for Chuck Norris.
Jasen called our attention to another favorite Star Wars exhibit: the only 3-D model of the Death Star made for the original 1977 movie. "This got thrown out," he said. "Someone was using it in their store as a trash can." According to the display, the lighted windows in the Death Star were created "by scratching holes in the painted surface and placing a light bulb inside."
Jasen said that visitors to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame are generally younger than at most museums. Some are just casual fans of E.T. or Wall-E, but others are as well-informed and passionate as Paul Allen. "They will correct you," Jasen said. "'Hey, this isn't right. The Matrix hovercraft was built in 2069, not 2169.'"
"We always thank them and check it out," said Jasen. "It's one of the benefits of having visitors who are fanatical."
UPDATE: (2013: Since this report was written, the collection is merged with the EMP Museum.)