Exhibiting fandom: A museological perspective

Dorus Hoebink, Stijn Reijnders, and Abby Waysdorf

Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—Fandom and the collecting of objects are interwoven phenomena. The insights of museum studies may be brought to bear on the study of fan objects to provide a better understanding of fan collections and fan collecting. A museum studies focus assesses the meanings and interpretations of material objects as well as the workings and dynamics of collections, collectors, and collecting. With science fiction fan collections used as examples, we highlight object and museum theory, demonstrating how this theory and its conceptual tools can be used to analyze fan culture. We then apply these tools to a case study: the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington, a museum in the United States largely dedicated to the genre of science fiction. When fan collections enter the realm of museums, fandom becomes a world that involves touching, smelling, collecting, and controlling objects.

[0.2] Keywords—Collection theory; Fan collections; Museology; Museum theory; Object theory

Hoebink, Dorus, Stijn Reijnders, and Abby Waysdorf. 2014. "Exhibiting Fandom: A Museological Perspective." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Hello, welcome to my inventory of my Star Trek collection…I'm going to start with—actually this is one of my favorites—this is my Star Trek Master Replicas type 2 phaser. They go for about $700 on eBay now. It comes with the option to power it up; the second power strip is red. Then it goes into overload mode…of course it fires as well. So I keep this one under glass. It's in a nice museum case, so it's protected against the elements. So that's on display in my Star Trek collection.

[1.2] This is how Jisaid08 (2010) starts a three-part video series, posted on YouTube, entitled "My Star Trek Collection" (since removed). Throughout the videos, we see, among other items, the above-mentioned Star Trek phaser, produced by the firm Master Replicas, displayed in a separate glass case, 1970s action figures in mint condition, and small-scale models of the starship Enterprise.

[1.3] Numerous collectors of Star Trek memorabilia and paraphernalia videotape their collections to show them to the world. Browsing through these videos, it is fascinating to see how many people have extensive collections of objects that are part of the Star Trek experience. Take, for example, Steve Kelley, who is interviewed by a local New Hampshire TV station showing off his futuristic cabinet of curiosities in which thousands and thousands of Star Trek objects are amassed. Sitting in a replica of Captain Kirk's command chair, he tells the audience, "Anything you can think of, I probably have something that has Star Trek on it." The camera zooms in on Star Trek babushka dolls, Star Trek Oreo cookies, and Star Trek cigarettes. Kelley explains that as a kid he just wanted toys to play with, but eventually he got to the point where he preferred looking at them on display while they were still in their original packaging. This led him to decide to collect more, "but as more stuff came out, I started to buy more." This led to the desire "to try and have almost a piece of everything" (Kelley 2008).

[1.4] As these Star Trek fan collections demonstrate, fandom and collecting are interwoven phenomena. Of course, not every fan has as an extensive fandom-related collection, and not every collector would describe himself or herself as a fan, but collecting is certainly an essential part of fandom. Surrounding oneself with objects that refer to the cultural icons one loves is one of the ways fandom is performed. However, despite the recognition that fans often collect objects relating to their fandom, collection has been a generally neglected part of the study of fans. Fan scholarship has preferred to focus on texts and on the interconnections between reading, writing, and receiving them. This work, although important and integral in showing the ways in which fans interpret, understand, and make use of favorite texts, as well as showing fans' creativity and production skills (Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992, 2006; Jenson 1992; Hills 2002; Sandvoss 2005; Hellekson and Busse 2006; Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007; Booth 2010), has been less fruitful in providing a framework for understanding the role of physical objects of fandom.

[1.5] That collecting has been a relatively neglected area of fan practice perhaps points to the conflicting thoughts around consumption within fandom. As Matt Hills observed, for much of the field of fan studies' short life, particularly in its earliest stages, "fandom is salvaged for academic study by removing the taint of consumption and consumerism" (2002, 30). A focus on textual and media production demonstrated how fans are more than obsessive consumers and provided a continuing base from which to look at the more affective aspects of fandom. The collection of fan objects is, as John Fiske (1992) has noted, concerned with the purchase of mass-produced commodities, and therefore it elicits the specter of the duped or obsessive consumer. Fiske's study of the economy of fandom, which utilizes Bourdieu's (1989) ideas of cultural and economic capital in order to analyze different elements of fan practices, addresses collection, although in a limited manner. Fiske's section on collecting stresses the fan collector's desire for accumulation of all fandom-related objects rather than on the exclusivity of certain special objects and on the ways in which the economy of fandom reproduces the official cultural economy, such as in the way comic book fans talk about their collections as investments. However, Fiske's briefness on the topic and his fixation on the cheapness of fan commodities, compared to official cultural collections, and the subordinate status of fans and their collections means that there is space for a more nuanced concept of fan collecting.

[1.6] It is crucial to differentiate between the concepts of commodity and object. The former implies an emphasis on the acts of selling and buying and is part of a (neo)Marxist theoretical framework that merely focuses on the agency (or the lack thereof) of the consumer. Furthermore, the concept of commodity focuses on questions about the use and exchange value of fan-purchased physical objects. Yet this is not the only, or even the most prominent, way that fans make use of certain mass-market commodities. Sandvoss acknowledges that "fans give their consumption an inherently private and personal nature that removes their object of consumption from the logic of capitalist exchange" (2005, 116), making these objects something other than commodities. The studies of toys conducted by Geraghty (2006) and Gray (2010) provide an empirical backing to this, showing how objects "contribute to the storyworld, offering audiences the prospect of stepping into that world and contributing to it" (Gray 2010, 187). For many fans, these products are connected with their fandom on a personal level and are transformed into beloved objects—cornerstones of imaginative fan worlds.

[1.7] There has been an increase in studies that explore these connections and provide a greater understanding of the material aspects of fandom. Studies relating to the use of toys in imaginative play in fandom and involvement in fan worlds, such as those by Geraghty (2006) and Gray (2010), provide an interesting look at how objects are used by fans, especially young fans (and the adults they become). The study of comic book fandom (Brown 1997; Tankel and Murphy 1998; Woo 2012) has also provided insight into the way fans collect and use collecting as part of their fandom, perhaps because of comic books' intertwining of texts with objects. Rehak's study of the "object practices from Famous Monsters" (2013, 4), which focuses on the material practices of horror fans, contains the arguments that, first, the community of monster kit builders and action figure collectors "introduces a productive 'noise' of negotiation into market trends" (27), and second, objects play a role in the creation and reimagining of media texts. Finally, Geraghty (2014) discusses how and why material culture and collecting play important roles in fans' personal narratives.

[1.8] This scholarship demonstrates that an approach via museum and object studies can be valuable by removing fan-collected objects from the commodity-consumption framework and viewing these objects and their collection in a new light. Insights from museum and object studies contribute to a better understanding of fan collections and fan collecting by utilizing the field's focus on the ascribed meanings and interpretations of material objects as well as the workings and dynamics of collections, collectors, and collecting, thus broadening the field's theoretical horizon with regard to objects beyond the concepts of commodity and consumption by making use of theory surrounding material and cultural objects and the dynamics of collections and collecting. Previous work has focused mainly on amateur collecting, which is only part of the story; fan cultures are not restricted to the domain of fan homes but are increasingly represented in museums. This "museumification" of fan culture is an intriguing process wherein meanings of fan culture objects are transformed and the museums themselves are tasked with proving to a wide audience that fan culture is worthy of being in a museum. What happens when fan culture enters the museum?

[1.9] We begin by highlighting object and museum theory, showing how this theory and its related conceptual tools can be used to analyze the material dimensions of fan culture. The starting point for our discussion is the work of Pearce (1992, 1994), supplemented with the more recent work of, among others, Preziosi and Farago (2004) and Curtis (2012). Although Pearce's work does not focus on fan culture, her pioneering texts on museums, collections, and objects are fertile ground for analyzing and theorizing the fan collector and the transformations that private collections undergo when they are institutionalized through the workings of the museum. Next, we apply these tools to a specific case study: the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington, which opened its doors in 2000 and which is unique in its large collection dedicated to the genre of science fiction (note 1). Many of the exhibitions at the EMP Museum are based on the private collections of fans, in particular that of museum founder (and Microsoft cofounder) Paul G. Allen. Analyzing the EMP Museum therefore not only illustrates how concepts from object theory can be applied to (official) fan collections but also shines light on the underlying process: the museumification of fan culture.

[1.10] Our data are based on a site analysis of the science fiction presentations at the EMP Museum conducted between August 31 and September 2, 2011, and between July 29 and August 5, 2012. Exhibitions, including wall texts, were photographed in detail, and audio guides and films were recorded. A combination of methods is used here. We applied discourse analysis to all museum texts (wall texts, object labels, audio guides, and shown films), and we used a semiotic analysis to gain a better understanding of the interplay between the museum texts, the displayed objects, and the presentation techniques.

2. Objects, collections, and museums

[2.1] In museology, objects are not consumed but are acquired or collected. From this interpretation comes an understanding that physical things have a life in the possession of their owner after purchase and are not discarded after they have been used, read, or seen. Moreover, the museological concept of the object stresses the materiality of things, which implies that they are durable and may survive the lives of their original owners and start new lives of their own, creating new relations and new contexts. Therefore, objects can link the past to the present and can operate as strong personal or even collective mnemonic devices. An understanding of the sheer materiality of things means that collected items, including fan-collected items, have to be considered on their merits as objects, rather than being seen as other cultural texts. As Pearce states, "Material culture does not match language in a one-to-one sense, still less in a one-in-relation-to-one sense, but has an independent social existence of its own which contributes to social reproduction" (1992, 22)

[2.2] Pearce (1992) argues that objects are independent from words, and language alone is not sufficient enough to comprehend them. Sometimes we have to see, touch, and smell objects to understand them. Additionally, we use them to create our social lives in order to feel at home. Objects have the power to invoke memories and emotions, and many objects are intrinsic, though not always explainable, parts of our biography. Pearce focuses on the power of objects to carry the past into the present, but this concept can be extended. Objects link us not only to other times but also to other people, other places, and other lifestyles or taste cultures. They can be direct and immanent mediums, to the extent that we perceive objects as the "real thing," especially when juxtaposed against descriptions, images, and recordings.

[2.3] In order to explain the exact functioning of the object as medium, Pearce (1992) turns to semiotics, asserting that semiotics is applicable not only to the workings of language and texts but also to objects. Using the work of the semioticians Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and Roland Barthes (1915–1980), Pearce recognizes that an object as sign consists of a signified (the message that the sign communicates) and the signifier (the physical embodiment of that message). An object then functions as a sign as it communicates a message (signified) through its materiality (signifier). For example, a gold ring communicates luxury and beauty (the signified) through its materiality (expensive gold) and form (a shiny and perfect round form). The fact that the material and form (signifiers) of the gold ring stand for luxury and beauty (signified), however, is a result of human choice. Thus, the exact message that an object communicates is constructed by interpretation.

[2.4] This interpretation—the choice for the meaning of an object—can take on two forms, metonymic and metaphorical, a distinction originally developed by Stewart (1993). First, the interpretation of an object can be metonymic, which means that an object stands for a larger entity in which it is embedded. The gold ring thus stands for all the gold rings ever produced, as it is an intrinsic part of the wide range of gold rings, just as a piece of pyrite in a natural history museum acts like a specimen standing for all the pyrite in the natural world. However, we can also interpret objects metaphorically. In that case, "they are brought into an arbitrary association with elements to which they bear no intrinsic relationship" (Pearce 1992, 27). This means that we can interpret our gold ring in multiple ways, such as an example of the material lifestyle of the nouveaux riches, who decorate themselves ostentatiously with the most luxurious items they can find.

[2.5] According to Pearce (1992), objects can be simultaneously interpreted metonymically and metaphorically because their material form always remains an intrinsic part of their wholes; through their durable physicality, they always keep metonymically connected to (though often physically detached from) their origins. At the same time, they can be endlessly reinterpreted metaphorically as time progresses and social structures transform. This model not only applies to one-of-a-kind objects but to all objects in collections, whether they be ordinary work tools, unique handcrafted artifacts, or mass-produced merchandise.

[2.6] Although objects are meaningful to us through interpretation, they truly begin to speak when they are put into relation with other objects and together form a collection. Objects undergo a transformation when they become part of a collection. They are removed from their preexisting worlds and are used and arranged in a collection-dedicated place, which allows them to take on new meanings (MacDonald 2006). Collections are ordered and serialized, which means that relations between them are established and implied. It is in this set of relations that objects take on new meanings. Simply put, making collections is a way of ordering, or grasping, the world (Preziosi and Farago 2004).

[2.7] Collecting is not a univocal practice. Pearce (1992) distinguishes three different types of collections: souvenir collections, fetishistic collections, and systematic collections. Souvenir collections—another concept introduced by Stewart (1993) and incorporated by Pearce in her theoretical framework—are the most personal objects that form collections. They are the materialized memories of experiences. Objects have the physical power to survive, and in this sense, souvenirs function as triggers of personal memories. They help us narrate our life and present it to ourselves and others as an organic whole, with its own unique continuity. Here we see a metaphoric interpretation emerging. Although it remains possible to connect a single souvenir to the whole of that type of souvenir (as they are often mass produced), in combination with other souvenirs in our collection, it metaphorically becomes part of our own personal narrative (Stewart 1993).

[2.8] Although it can be said that almost every fan is a collector of souvenirs, some fans start serious collections with a personal systematic rationale that can lead to collections of impressive proportions, described by Pearce (1992) as fetishistic collections. However, in spite of the fact that the fetishistic collection has a similar quality to museums, it does not follow the same intellectual or scientific rationale as the museum. Rather, fetishistic collections are formed through the collector's personality. Pearce (1992, 84) states: "The fetishistic nature lies in the relationship between the objects and their collector, in which the collection plays the crucial role in defining the personality of the collector, who maintains a possessive but worshipful attitude toward his objects." In other words, the collection stands or falls with the individual behind it. These collections can be seen as impressive physical extensions of their owners' personalities. They identify themselves with their collections and the emotions that their objects evoke, which stimulates them to collect even more, until they have a sample of everything. Fiske (1992, 45) equates all fan collecting with this fetishistic collecting, claiming that these collections "stress quantity and all-inclusiveness over quality or exclusivity." However, although fetishistic collecting is eye-catching, it is still only one form of collecting that a certain kind of fan engages in.

[2.9] Although use of the word fetishistic remains common within museum studies, the term is highly contested within fan studies. As pointed out by Winget (2011, 30), among others, in general use, the term carries a strong derogatory connotation, reflecting a sense of pathology or obsession that prevents a more considered look at collectors and collecting. Therefore, we choose to follow Winget's suggestion and use the term devoted instead. This allows us to emphasize collectors' above-average loyalty to their collection and the worshipful attitude expressed by devoted collectors toward their objects while avoiding connotations of pathology.

[2.10] In devoted collections, the collection itself becomes much more predominant, as if it takes on a life of its own, in which the objects are detached from their original contexts as objects in souvenir collections. The metaphorical interpretation of how a certain object fits in our biography is superseded by metaphorical interpretations of how we were able to obtain certain objects, how much or how little we paid for them, how rare certain objects are, and how certain objects fulfill important roles in the completeness of our collection. One of us (D.H.) encountered an example of such a collection while attending a board meeting of the Dutch Star Trek fan club, the Flying Dutch. Although all the members of the board shared an interest in and passion for Star Trek—which was materially communicated by donating to D.H. an autographed photo of one of the cast members, a clear example of a souvenir—divisions arose when one of the board members started describing his Star Trek trading card collection. He exhibited a level of enthusiasm for his collection that was not shared by his fellow board members, who withdrew from the conversation. The trading card collector was keen on collecting every trading card that was put on the market, even—or especially—the ones with mistakes, which are naturally quite rare. In this case, the passion for Star Trek was momentarily superseded by the passion related to collecting trading cards. Completing the collection had taken on a life on its own, giving way to a whole new range of stories and anecdotes that were trading card related and not Star Trek related.

[2.11] The third category, systematic collecting, which Pearce (1992) identifies with the methods of museums, has a long history. In the European context, the earliest systematic collections date back to the Renaissance. In this period, well-to-do noblemen and citizens became increasingly curious about the world they lived in and felt an urge to closely examine God's creations (Shelton 1994). Reading and interpreting the text of the Bible was found to be insufficient to truly admire and understand divine harmony; one had to experience the Creation empirically. It is from this time that the first private material collections throughout Europe were constructed in the form of cabinet de curiosités, studiolas, and Wunder- or Kunstkammern. These collections were the private domains of affluent gentlemen who pursued the goal of accumulating God's creation in their own personal realms, according to then-current scientific standards (Schulz 1994; Halbertsma 2012). Each collection had to be organized as specified by the following methods of classification: naturalia, specimens found in the natural world; artificialia, human-created objects such as art and products of craftsmanship; scientifica, scientific and measuring instruments such as lenses and clocks; antiquita, the remaining objects of the ancient civilizations; and curiosity, remarkable and unique objects such as freaks of nature, which demonstrated God's power to transform His own creation.

[2.12] Collections continued to grow and increase in number during the scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries but were now expected to be composed on the basis of new encyclopedic principles (Findlen 2012). The world had become classifiable; this was translated into collections that obtained typical examples of all encyclopedic categories. The focus shifted from the remarkable to the typical (Schulz 1994). In the 19th century, an emerging Romantic worldview encouraged a celebration of the past and traditional community. Objects were perceived to function as links to the pasts of nations and communities and to embody the unique characteristics of the world's different peoples (Halbertsma 2012).

[2.13] The professionalization and institutionalization of the collecting, conserving, and exhibiting of material culture in the emergence of the public museum set standards of how to properly deal with objects. Systematic collections "are formed by the imposition of ideas of classification and seriality on the external world, but the world itself has, one way or another, given rise to these ideas" (Pearce 1992, 88). They are centered around specific intellectual disciplines, which then dictate the sorts of objects that are collected, the number of objects collected, and the ways in which they are displayed (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). All objects in museum presentations undergo metaphorical interpretation as they are positioned using an intellectual or scientific rationale that offers qualifying structures, such as natural history or art history, as these are human constructs and therefore metaphors (Pearce 1995). However, within these qualifying structures, objects can form metonymies for these specific metaphors (Pearce 1995, 275)—for example, "This Monet painting stands for Monet's landscapes," or "This Monet painting stands for the Impressionist movement."

[2.14] Systematic collecting differs from the other two forms of collecting in its seemingly neutral and universal method of object discrimination. It is often said that when an object enters the museum, it ceases to be an object and becomes a specimen of an overarching scientific rationale—or, in our case, metaphor (Preziosi and Farago 2004; Curtis 2012). Although these ideas of neutrality and universality of museum collecting have long been challenged by critical museologists (Vergo 1989; Bennet 1995), a widespread belief maintains that public museums are the highest consecrating authority in the world of material culture (Bourdieu 1993). Private collecting, however, also continues to flourish. Nowadays countless private collections exist around every conceivable subject: baseball cards, matchboxes, World War II paraphernalia, egg cups. Private and professional collecting are not separate worlds; they have influenced and continue to influence each other. Many private collections end up in museums, which then have to fit them into their institutional metaphorical interpretations—a task not always easy to achieve.

3. Captain Kirk's command chair enters the museum: The transformation of collections

[3.1] The museum's professionalized methods of collecting, conserving, and displaying objects, along with its strong rhetorical claim on objectivity and universality, mean that museums transform objects to a greater degree than personal collecting. The authority that professional curators have over material culture makes their arsenal of metaphorical interpretations of objects both more extensive and more influential than that of private collectors. Bourdieu (1993) uses the concept of consecration to explain the influence of museums over material culture. In the eyes of many, museums make the final judgment regarding the value and presiding interpretation of cultural objects.

[3.2] However, the academic movement of new museology has accused traditional museums of excluding and misinterpreting the material culture of a substantial part of the communities that museums are claiming to represent while favoring and overrepresenting the culture of a white, Western, and elitist upper class. In reaction to this critique, the museum world has started a process of transformation, offering more serious dedication to, among other things, popular culture, treating it as a legitimate and museum-worthy part of social life (Moore 1997). Additionally, new museums have been built dealing solely with aspects of popular culture. A result of this process is that many objects of fan culture have found their way into museums, both old and new.

[3.3] The EMP Museum is one such museum. The bulk of the objects in its science fiction exhibitions come from extensive private souvenir and devoted collections, of which Paul Allen's private collection is the most visible. Allen's wealth and status allow him to collect on a far grander scale than the average fan, yet the style and manner of his collection are the same. It is interesting to see how his collection has moved through all of Pearce's categories. The souvenir phase of his collecting career can be traced back to his old collection of science fiction paperback books, which he acquired during his youth. In his autobiography, Allen (2011) tells the anecdote that as an adult, he discovered that his mother had thrown away this collection. Because, retrospectively, science fiction stories played an important role in triggering his fascination with the possibilities of technology—and therefore were an important source of inspiration during his later career—Allen tracked down copies of his original collection, retrieving almost all of them. That small collection of paperbacks served as the material component of Allen's personal biography, providing him with a sense of continuity: science fiction paperbacks as souvenirs.

[3.4] As Allen's wealth increased, his ability to collect in a devoted fashion greatly increased. The precise content of Allen's entire collection is shrouded in mystery because his acquisitions take place in high secrecy. What we do know is that Allen's collection follows the broad range of his personal interests: antiquities, fine art, rock-and-roll curios, vintage technology, military aircraft, science fiction literature, science fiction film props. "The breadth of what interests me sometimes surprises even me," Allen notes in an interview (Gopnik 2012). This is what distinguishes Allen's larger devoted collection from a traditional museum's systematic collection: Allen's collection follows no other rationale than his own.

[3.5] However, Allen's wealth and status in the city of Seattle, where both commercial and philanthropic investments have made him influential, mean that not only could he afford to collect on a level that most cannot, but also that he could gain legitimacy for his collection. His wealth enabled him to acquire particularly rare or interesting objects, especially ones used in the filming of science fiction works. It also allowed him to create and open the EMP Museum, which was almost entirely funded by Allen (Zebrowski 2000). He presented it as a gift to the city of Seattle and to the communities of science fiction and music fans.

[3.6] We can see in the creation of the EMP Museum a desire to legitimize Allen's own collecting and the items that he collects. By creating a museum, and therefore utilizing the rhetoric and status of museums, Allen's collection moves from the realm of the devoted to the realm of the systematic. It now must operate outside of Allen, adhering to the neutral and universal concept of the museum rather than the personal and idiosyncratic desires of the private collector. In theory, if Allen ceased to exist, the collection would still endure, grow, and change. By submitting to this, Allen, and those who now work for the museum, are arguing that science fiction is worthy of official public attention and that these objects are worthy of preservation.

[3.7] The transformation of Allen's collection from devoted to systematic is not without problems. One option could have been to simply display Allen's science fiction collection—possibly supplemented by other interesting objects coming from other private collections—and leave it at that. However, this kind of exhibition would only be interesting or accessible to a relatively small community of fans who either share Allen's passion or are already in the know about the social and technological value of science fiction. Allen's desire was to not only display his achievements as a collector but also to showcase science fiction's contributions to society. "Science fiction has always been a vehicle for entertainment, but more importantly it's a genre that is forward-looking by nature, expanding people's views of science, technology and the future—and their exciting possibilities," Allen stated when the first science fiction exhibition was about to open in the EMP Museum (Business Wire 2003).

[3.8] When Allen's collection entered the EMP Museum, it also entered the museum world as such, which is a challenging operation for two reasons. First, unlike a private collection, a museum has to justify its existence to the wider world. Although Allen himself could take pride in the status of his collection over other collections of similar material, the museum management was confronted with the fact that their new collection was based on a popular genre that ranks low on the ladder of cultural hierarchy. Although science fiction is commercially successful, it is commonly perceived to be culturally inferior to texts or artifacts from high culture. There is an immense rivalry in the museum world: art museums are at the top of the hierarchy, and other types of museums fight for recognition. The EMP Museum must exist and compete in this atmosphere.

[3.9] Second, Allen's science fiction paraphernalia, by becoming part of a museum collection, must be promoted in commercial terms. This is distinct from, but related to, the need to make the science fiction collection feel museum-worthy. Museums, and especially American museums, have to reach a broad audience—one that comprises more than just science fiction fans. The EMP Museum must persuade museumgoers, many of whom have no special interest in science fiction, that science fiction is enjoyable and fascinating. The objects contained in the collection must seem culturally relevant to a larger population, not just to specialists or in-the-know fans.

[3.10] The EMP Museum's mission statement notes, "EMP is a leading-edge, nonprofit museum, dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture" ( How does one present this intellectual rationale with objects that are reflecting a single person's specific interests? This challenge is clearly observable in the EMP Museum. Its curators, now distinct from Allen's world of collectors and operating in the world of museums, must make the argument that science fiction is museum-worthy and has important things to say. How is this done with film props, costumes, and first editions of novels?

[3.11] The first strategy to make Allen's collection museum-worthy can be seen in the descriptions provided of the objects on display. This follows a standard museum discourse in which a metonymic interpretation takes place within the metaphor of scientific and intellectual museum interpretation. Thus labels are positioned next to the objects, such as this one by Captain Kirk's command chair: "Enterprise command chair used on Star Trek, 1966–1969. From the Paul Allen Family Collection." This is a typical metonymy presenting Captain Kirk's command chair as one example of the models and props used in the classic Star Trek series. To provide another example, a miniature alien spaceship from the film Independence Day is labeled as follows: "Alien fighter craft filming miniature used in Independence Day, 1995," metonymically interpreting the miniature as an example of Independence Day filming miniatures and as an example of filming miniatures in general. These labels resemble descriptions found in history museums such as, "Clay pot used for cooking, AD 200–300, Germany."

[3.12] Although such descriptions are in line with museum standards, they do not contribute to the EMP Museum's and Allen's ultimate goal: showcasing science fiction's value. This is less of a problem for history museums and their clay pots: it is their purpose to display the materials people used in daily life. There is no friction between metonymy and metaphor. Many objects in the EMP Museum are accompanied by longer texts that metaphorically put them into context, most notably by the audio guides. The audio guide describes the uniform worn by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series as follows:

[3.13] It might be hard now to remember what a big deal it was in 1966 for an African American woman to be portraying an officer on a spaceship on television. Lieutenant Uhura wasn't just a staff member; she was in the chain of command. She could conceivably have command of the ship, if need be.

[3.14] The audio guide then tells us that Nichols was thinking of quitting the show, but that she was convinced not to by Martin Luther King Jr. because she was an inspiration for African American children. Here metonymy and metaphor come closer together, although it takes several steps to reach the intended metaphor: science fiction contributed to social thought; Star Trek was a prime example of this; Lieutenant Uhura, played by a black actress, was part of this; here you see her costume.

[3.15] Many other contextualizations fail to reach the ultimate metaphorical interpretations and get stuck on a making-of level. Battlestar Galactica: The Exhibition (2010–12; the exhibition covers both the original TV show, which aired 1978–79, and the reboot, which aired 2003, 2004–9) is introduced with the following wall text: "The series acted as a lens through which to examine complex issues such as war, the clash of cultures and religions, the quest for meaning in an uncertain world, and how we try—and sometimes fail—to maintain our humanity during times of crisis." This metaphor is reflected in the structure of the exhibition, with one part dealing with the rebooted Battlestar Galactica's search for the planet Earth and with that the search for meaning. The other part deals with the struggle between humans and the humanlike Cylons, raising questions about what it means to be human and the distinction between good and evil. Some displayed objects reach these metaphors through steps similar to that of Lieutenant Uhura's costume: Battlestar Galactica raised questions about what it means to be human; this was achieved by comparing human behavior with that of humanlike robots called Cylons; one of these Cylons was called Number Six; here you see Number Six's iconic red dress.

[3.16] However, other objects do not reach this level. The audio guide describing a full-sized model of the Viper Mark II space fighter (on loan from Universal Cable Productions) goes into the process of filming a Viper Mark II entering the hangar deck after flying in space. The question the producers faced, and what was discussed on the audio guide, was whether or not the Vipers would emit smoke. Although these considerations are interesting for Battlestar Galactica fans, they fail to support the overarching metaphorical interpretation of the Viper Mark II. The most notable example of the making-of metaphor is Avatar: The Exhibition (2011–12), where the EMP Museum offers visitors a closer look in the world building and production of James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar. Here are displayed prototypes of the alien Na'vi characters—among other prototypes—that formed the basis for the graphic designers to model their virtual world on. The breach between metonymy and metaphor is circumvented, as it is clearly the exhibition's goal to showcase Avatar's achievements in the world of virtual world building and filmmaking. These technological achievements are of a different kind than science fiction's focus on technology. Avatar's futuristic technology is mostly remarkable within the field of filmmaking; it is less a critical reflection on the role of technology in society. Therefore, the overarching making-of metaphor of the Avatar exhibition does not really cohere with the EMP Museum's mission regarding science fiction.

[3.17] From this it can be concluded that the EMP Museum struggles with positioning the collections it makes use of in its script. To bridge this metonymy-metaphor gap, the museum uses other museum tools to get its message across. For example, general wall texts inform the visitor about the value of science fiction. We already encountered the introductory text to Battlestar Galactica: The Exhibition, but the exhibition Icons of Science Fiction (2012–) and Can't Look Away: The Lure of the Horror Film (2011–) also give clear directions. Icons of Science Fiction (figure 1)—the exhibition displaying Captain Kirk's command chair, Uhura's costume, and Independence Day's miniature spaceship—begins with this wall text:

[3.18] Science Fiction asks big weird, questions…As you encounter the questions, ask yourself what answers you would give. And a last question: Who cares? What does science fiction has to do with us? The fact is, all the bizarre stuff in SF is a metaphor for real stuff. In other words, SF warps reality in order to reveal the truth about it.

Color photo of the interior of a museum, with exhibit items in glass cases, including Captain Kirk's command chair and Lieutenant Uhura's red dress.

Figure 1. Icons of Science Fiction exhibition at the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Dorus Hoebink. [View larger image.]

[3.19] Can't Look Away: The Lure of the Horror Film is introduced with the following wall text: "But horror films offer more than just entertainment. They expose the primal emotions of the human experience by tapping into the anxieties of contemporary culture and visualizing the unspeakable fears and forbidden desires that lie just beneath the polite face of society."

[3.20] Additionally, the museum has an excellent oral history program for which numerous insiders from the world of science fiction have been interviewed. These interviews are shown on screens throughout all the exhibitions. In the horror exhibition, horror directors Eli Roth, Roger Corman, and John Landis convincingly describe "the lure of the horror film" and even designate a horror canon, consisting of 10 films. A separate short documentary has been made for each film. In the same exhibition, however, the gap between object and script returns: the props from famous horror films do not support the exhibition's arguments about why horror is so alluring. They are accompanied by an audio guide in which the private collectors who own the props tell anecdotes about acquiring the props or meeting the props' designers. Here the difficulty of bringing devoted collections into a systematic environment is clearly evident.

[3.21] Other museum tools include the intricate touch-screen computers that offer a wide amount in-depth information and the museum building itself. Frank O. Gehry's design is a highly visible landmark that symbolically communicates that something extraordinary is going on (figure 2). The EMP Museum building, which resembles the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Spain, also designed by Gehry, is clearly demarcated from its surroundings. This is supported by the museum's theatrical mise-en-scènes. For the horror exhibition a haunted forest was designed; for the Avatar exhibition a small-scale Pandora, including blue light, was reconstructed. In combination with the largest high-definition LED screen in the world and the museum's entrance, by which are shown video clips and short science fiction films, the museum's exterior and interior can be seen as a shrine to popular culture, a place for celebration rather than critical contemplation. Through this message, another metaphorical reinterpretation takes place: science fiction objects now have to be presented as accessible, high-quality entertainment, highlighted by evocative exhibitions with dramatic lighting, immersive music, and sound effects. The EMP Museum must look like a museum as well as talk like one. These objects are presented as no longer just for geeks; they are for everyone, and therefore, they are worthy of being placed in a museum.

Color photo of the exterior of a building. The building is in three parts; the ones on the ends are blue-silver in color, with cladding that appears to be waving in the wind; the middle one, which has purple, violet, and yellow rectangles, appears to be fragmenting.

Figure 2. Exterior of the EMP Museum in Seattle, Washington, by architect Frank O. Gehry. Photo by Dorus Hoebink. [View larger image.]

[3.22] On a more general level, the EMP Museum also displays the permeability between categories like the souvenir and devoted personal collections on the one hand and the systematic, institutionalized museum collection on the other hand, showing how the three can sometimes bleed into each other. Most of the displayed objects are rare and therefore unsuitable for collecting as souvenirs. However, as is common in most museums, the EMP Museum's extensive stores offer visitors the opportunity to add to their own personal souvenir collections. These gift-shop souvenirs can function as additions to an already existing souvenir fan collection—the museum has Battlestar Galactica T-shirts and miniature starships Enterprise for sale—or as a remembrance of the museum visit as such. Yet the general supply of merchandise is largely detached from the museum's exhibitions and can be described as a general store for science fiction and rock music aficionados looking for quirky gadgets, such as guitar-shaped spatulas and Thin Lizzy shot glasses. Yet the most typical museum store souvenirs, such as museum guides, exhibition catalogs, and postcards of objects on display, are missing.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] The museumification of fan culture (and the related processes of legitimization and popularization of fan culture) is not without risk. This transformation could alienate the core fan base. Museumification may result in too categorized and distant a presentation of objects, one that that only hard-core fans will emotionally respond to. The struggle for legitimization may also end up in an overtheorized approach, complicating the matter to the point of alienating fans. There is also the opposite danger: the fan community might perceive popularization as dumbing things down. Paradoxically, most fans do not dislike the fact that they are misunderstood by mainstream society; instead, they relish being in a sphere of exclusivity.

[4.2] Yet the museumification of fan heritage increases the number of people who have access to the objects of interest. These objects, rather than being kept in Allen's private spaces, instead now have the opportunity to be experienced by those who value them and what they represent. Legitimization may also arouse feelings of pride in members of the science fiction community, as their favorite genre is finally presented as genuine culture. Even popularization may be held in high esteem. As one of the curators of the EMP Museum told the authors, "A lot of guys would love to visit our museum with the wives and girlfriends. For our renewed permanent exhibition we are looking for ways to involve them, pointing out that they always liked science fiction; they just did not know that until they visited us." The desire to broaden and legitimize science fiction, moving it away from its stereotypes, means that fans could embrace attempts like the EMP Museum.

[4.3] The EMP Museum is not the only museum facing challenges of matching its collection with the stories its curators want to tell. Museologists have taken note of these problems, with Michael J. Ettema famously observing, "Objects are the props, not the message" (cited in Moore 1997, 34). This happens when the objects that comprise the collection are not the immediate point of reference. Objects can answer questions like "What is something?" or "What happened?" Questions like "How did something happen?", "Why did something happen?", and "What is the contribution of something?" are more difficult for an object to answer and seem to require an overarching metatext.

[4.4] The Maison d'Ailleurs, self-described as a "museum of science fiction, utopia, and extraordinary journeys" (, in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, struggles in much the same way. Although the Maison d'Ailleurs has a larger focus on the literary tradition of science fiction, whereas the EMP Museum focuses more on the media side of science fiction, and although it does not shy away from analyzing science fiction from an academic perspective, it has problems positioning its collection of novels, pulp magazines, and other memorabilia in a literary and intellectual script.

[4.5] Time will tell whether the EMP Museum, the Maison d'Ailleurs, and similar examples of museumification, such as Stockholm's ABBA The Museum ( or the Smithsonian's collection of National Treasures of Popular Culture (2008–12), will indeed succeed in reaching the general public. These aspirations, however, do illustrate a more general development: the ascent of popular fan culture into the domain of museums—once considered as the temples of high culture—whereby inferior mass objects become part of sanctified cultural categories.

[4.6] Studying these museological dimensions of fan culture can be highly valuable. For too long, scholars working within the discipline of fan studies have focused on texts and the textual practices of fandom without paying much attention to the material, physical dimension of fan culture, despite its clear importance to many fans. Fandom is about more than reading and writing; it also about touching, smelling, controlling, and collecting the objects of fandom. Museologists, despite the developments within the field of new museology, have been too hesitant to cross the divide between disciplines. However, the current interest in fan collecting and fan collections is a promising development, and it should be noted that such collecting does not only take place in the amateur realm. High-status institutions, such as museums, play increasingly important roles in the representation of fan and popular culture, as our example of the EMP Museum has demonstrated. It is important to critically assess these representations to better analyze these dimensions of fandom.

5. Note

1. The EMP Museum started as the Experience Music Project in 2000. In 2004, a separate museum, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, was opened under the same roof as the Experience Music Project. Later these two organizations merged to form the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, which in 2011 became the EMP Museum. Throughout, we use "EMP Museum" to describe the science fiction collections and exhibitions on display at this facility.

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