Space craft

When the Barbican was handed an out-of-this-world brief for an exhibition about the art used in Star Wars, it devised a display to blow the mind of even the most die-hard fans.

The Art of Star Wars exhibition, which ran at London’s Barbican Centre recently, presented unusual challenges to exhibition consultancy Shelton Fleming. Part of the brief was to stage the event in the Barbican’s gallery, which is spread over two floors and hardly an ideal exhibition shape.

Other problems included fulfiling the marketing objectives of Lucasfilm, while resisting the temptation to go overboard in the creation of a setting based on inter-galactic landscapes. The brief, devised by Barbican curator Conrad Bodman, was to concentrate on the degree of art used in the film-making process.

“The design brief obviously had to reflect the feeling of the movies, but this was more to give a flavour than create a contextual environment,” says Bodman. “The exhibition is about the art process used in creating the film, it is not a general Star Wars show, nor is it designed to show how the film was made. The exhibition environment, therefore, had to focus on, and at some points, isolate the art exhibits.”

Within this brief, however, it was necessary to appeal to a wide range of visitors, from young children to pensioners.

Bodman says: “We had witnessed children going round costume displays at museums and getting nothing out of it – so we knew we had to do something exciting.”

The exhibition also had to fall within the marketing and branding requirements set by film producer Lucasfilm. Unlike most blockbuster movie producers, the company had retained the majority of its artwork since the series had started more than 20 years ago, and this was the first time it had allowed the material to be used in such a way.

“In terms of addressing the Star Wars audience, the exhibition is there to both reward fans and to promote the Star Wars concept,” says Lucasfilm vice-president of marketing Jim Ward.

“We have a relationship with fans that goes beyond that associated with most films, and this exhibition provides an opportunity to enhance that relationship. It’s very important that people understand that Star Wars is broader than other sci-fi films, and this breadth extends to the complexity of design. It is the attention to detail that allows people to get swept into the drama, and we wanted to explain the art process and give people the chance to see the detail and craftsmanship – a lot of film makers don’t go to such lengths.”

The approach taken by Shelton Fleming was to create a series of zones that reflect the different themes in the event: sketches and artwork, models, sound effects, computer graphics, costumes, creatures and “droid” characters. The layout of the gallery, two floors of U-shaped space, actually lent itself to this approach because the architecture provides natural breaks between the different sections. The displays also varied in format. Artwork, for example, was in a traditional gallery style with light, uncluttered backdrops. Models and costumes were predominantly in glass cases although some of the larger models were uncased, such as Anakin’s podracer, which was suspended from the ceiling. The displays gave visitors a chance to see both the attention to detail in the model-making process, and to recognise the materials used in creating effects. The Pod Race Arena, for example, used dyed cotton buds to recreate faces in the crowd, which were moved by having a stream of air blown across the model.

Interactive sections

The sound effects and computer graphics sections were more interactive, giving visitors a chance to choose material to learn how the effects were created. The sound of an attacking spacecraft, for example, was produced by mixing a recording of an elephant roar with that of a car driving along a wet surface.

Shelton Fleming managing director Maurice Fleming says: “We have tried to work on three levels of experience.

“First is the environment – it was vital to create a Star Wars feel on entering the exhibition. Then came the emotional, as visitors were able to see the exhibition artwork, which mainly comprised objects that have actually been used in the films. Finally, we wanted to incorporate a level of interactivity with both electronic displays and models to get a feel for the film-making process. But within this it was critical that the show appealed to all age groups, so it had to be both fun and meaningful to those groups because the content is serious.”

Appealing to such a diverse audience was arguably the most difficult task because a balance had to be struck. Some ideas, such as a zone where children could have mock battles with light sabres, were dismissed, partly because of budget constraints, but also because it was moving beyond the original brief of focusing on artwork. But while it was recognised that adults could enjoy static exhibits and marvel at the ingenuity and attention to detail in the artwork, children would be less appreciative of such displays. The interactive elements in sound and graphics production obviously provide entertainment for younger visitors, and this is enhanced by an interactive computer room with access to the Star Wars website, production information and a rolling quiz. The model section provided interactive opportunities by providing latex masks, which could be worn, and an animatronics creature head (Ree Yees, the three-eyed alien) that visitors could operate to control facial gestures and movement.

Overall, the use of contextual settings was avoided; the Darth Vader section, was darkened, with the chilling “wheezy” sound effect welcoming visitors to his chamber, but other than that the approach was based on creating an understated environment.

“It would have been quite easy to make everything look like the inside of a space ship,” says Shelton Fleming senior designer Jane Livermore.

“But it would have needed a huge budget to look right, rather than tacky. Instead we opted to create an entrance with a bit of “wow” factor, leading to the first area housing the drawings, which we felt had to be kept simple. The sketches and paintings are beautiful, so we stuck to an all white space, to ensure that they were the centre of attention, indeed it has the feel of an art gallery. Although most of the models had to be behind glass for protection, we realised that it does separate them from the audience so we made the cabinets as light as possible and constructed them entirely from glass with no frames.

“Overall the approach was not to go mad with starcloths and portholes and so on. Many of the objects are big enough to create their own presence and, in other areas, it is the detail in the artwork that is important to get across.”

The exhibition, which ran until September 3, has moved to the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford, after which a move to continental Europe is possible.

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