Let me be the first to say, “May the 4th be with you.” (On the other hand, maybe I am not the first to do that today!) If you live in a house of Star Wars fanatics as I do, May 4th is our unofficial Star Wars holiday. The power of the Force seems to surround us in almost every aspect of our culture, spreading to more products and venues every year. You might see signs of the film franchise in your local grocery store, at a minor league baseball game, or on your local news broadcast. The phrase itself connotes a love for a movie franchise most often seen as existing a long, long time ago in a faraway galaxy. But whether you’re within the walls of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum or between the module walls of the International Space Station, fans can find a place to celebrate the Star Wars galaxy in our real space.
The “May the 4th” phrase originated in, of all places, an advertisement in a London newspaper congratulating Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on her first day in office on May 4, 1979. The phrase and idea of celebrating “Star Wars Day” languished, though, for almost three decades. Only occasional fan events called Star Wars Celebrations provided fans with a venue for sharing their fan love, taking inspiration from the world of Star Trek to gather in convention centers around the world, learn about new products related to the series, and dress as their favorite characters.
The start of Celebrations coincided with the release of the first prequel film, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, in 1999.. Since then, both physical and virtual methods of reveling in the film franchise picked up steam, especially with the explosion of social media networks just over a decade ago (see Wookiepedia, the Star Wars Minute podcast, and the Star Wars Show).
In the real world of museums--spaces for cultural analysis, scrutiny, and sometimes even celebration of a phenomenon such as Star Wars,--exhibitions provide a place for fans to connect with the artifacts of Star Wars filmmaking, including models, set pieces, conceptual artwork, costumes, and other props. Our favorite robotic friends, R2-D2 and C-3PO (in their Return of the Jedi incarnations), even found a permanent home at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where they appear in exhibitions from time to time.
The first dedicated exhibition highlighting the franchise, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, followed on the heels of the 20th anniversary Special Edition re-release of the first three films, opening in late 1997. Premiering with much fanfare on the National Mall, the exhibition featured the most memorable costumes and props from those movies including Yoda, the Millennium Falcon model, and of course, Darth Vader. Visitors even saw those loveable scoundrels on display: Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and Chewbacca. Displays spotlighted the costumes to show the incredible attention to detail employed by the film’s designers, which fans will see on screen yet again in the forthcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story (scheduled to be released on May 25, 2018). The exhibit, augmented with new pieces from the prequel films, toured the world successfully for more than five years.
Other museum exhibitions, all collaborations with Lucasfilm, likewise brought George Lucas’s expanding galaxy to our world to coincide with the release of new films:
- Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination (Museum of Science, Boston (and tour), October 2005 to March 2014);
- Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume (Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Services (tour), January 2015 to September 2018);
- Star Wars Identities (X3 Communications/Montreal Science Center, April 2012 to present).
Each featured treasures of the Lucasfilm Archives alongside descriptions and contextual information on both the objects and the narrative or ideological frameworks for the movies. More significant to fans, though, the objects serve as touchstones to a growing film series that give fans a sense of physical closeness to the stories, people, and forces that bring them together. Thankfully, you do not need to navigate through an asteroid field to make a stop at a local museum or science center to sense the real material nature of the Star Wars galaxy.
A handful of Star Wars fans have taken their fandom to a level most of us will never understand. Thanks to their exceptionally cool jobs of living and working in space itself, astronauts gave Star Wars a home in low-Earth orbit as well. Soundtracks served as wake-up call music for Space Shuttle crews, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber travelled aboard STS-120 to the International Space Station in honor of the franchise’s 30th anniversary in 2007, and both formal and informal crew portraits have featured Star Wars themes. Thoughtful crews on the ground and healthy data uplink capabilities have even made it possible for crews to watch Star Wars films at the same time as fans on Earth, making home feel closer than a hyperspace jump. The ability to participate in such activities provides a sense of connection for astronauts often orbiting for half a year, away from family and friends with whom they might normally enjoy the saga. Engineers at NASA, and particularly astronaut Kjell Lindgren, often discuss how Star Wars inspired their love of science and engineering despite the disconnection of our human story from that of the Jedi, Rebels, and Sith of Star Wars.
What “May the 4th” means to Star Wars fans is debatable. Many see it as a cheesy marketing ploy, while the tongue-in-cheek usage perhaps identifies fans with the sense of humor used by director Rian Johnson in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. At the very least, it’s a reminder of the endurance of an over-40-year-old cultural phenomenon and that Star Wars fans want opportunities to immerse themselves in that galaxy far, far away.