Fully Operational Fandom: How One Museum Engages Visitors With Star Wars

Fully Operational Fandom: Star Wars at the Cleveland Museum of Art

It’s no big revelation that Star Wars is everywhere. I’ve talked about it plenty in this column and know I’m not alone in encountering a quote from the films while I’m shopping or seeing Yoda graffiti while I’m taking a walk in a new city. The way it has pervaded into our culture can still surprise me though, and that happened when I stumbled across the Art Bites tours at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The monthly thirty-minute tours are scheduled at lunchtime, and they offer a unique way to experience the museum’s collections. Bethany Corriveau, an audience engagement specialist, wanted visitors to connect with the pieces on display so she came up with a twist: she based the tours on pop culture. You can see how our past ties to our favorite movies, books, or television shows. Once you see the threads, it opens your mind and makes you more aware of the way art influences other art.

And I bet you know where I’m going with this — yes, there was an Art Bites focused on Star Wars. Corriveau shared her notes on the tour she created to go with the galaxy far, far away, and it was only natural to tie the themes of the saga to Buddhist pieces. I talked with her about figuring out the specifics of the Star Wars tour and creating the Art Bites program.

StarWars.com: What spurred the decision to conduct tours of the Cleveland Museum of Art based on pop culture?

Bethany Corriveau: The basic idea — looking at art from different perspectives — actually came out of our app, ArtLens. The videos and slideshows do include the types of voices you might expect, like curators and art historians, but we also looked for people who could offer another view on a work of art. For example, there’s an ornithologist who talks about a painting of peregrine falcons by Audubon, and a ballet dancer discussing a Degas.

After working on content development for the app, I was already thinking about a “live-action” version of this idea of looking at art through different perspectives when I started a new position developing programming. For a program series, something had to tie all the different events together, but I didn’t want to replicate the perspectives that were already in the app. I settled on pop culture as an inspiration because it would be something that appeals to a lot of people; because it would work well with a shorter, informal style; and because it would be very different than the tours we already offered. My own topics tend to be more on the geeky spectrum, like Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and yes, Star Wars! To keep it varied and representative of a broader spectrum of pop culture, I work with other educators at the museum to develop topics from their own interests.

With any program I develop, I want to connect people to art. Sometimes I notice a detail or learn a fact or make a connection and think, “That’s so cool!” That’s what I’m trying to get you to with Art Bites — that moment when you see something in a work of art and you think, “Hey, awesome.” I think a lot of people have this idea that with art you either have to have some kind of awed, spiritual experience, or you have to approach it from an intellectual, educational viewpoint. Those are great ways of experiencing art, of course, but it’s also okay to just have fun and not feel like you need to have a super-serious experience.

StarWars.com: What has the reaction been to the Art Bites program?

Bethany Corriveau: The very first tour was a Game of Thrones tour, timed around the release of season three of the show. It was so different from anything that we’d done before that it got a lot of notice on the museum’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. (A hint — if you want the tour repeated on a weekend or evening, tell us on social media. If there’s interest, we’ll do a second run.) Since then, the reaction has continued to be very positive, and the attendance has been steadily growing. When the program started, I thought the attendance would be mostly people who weren’t regular visitors because the topics are so out-of-the-ordinary for us. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of regular museum-goers we get, too, who like the variety of options. Now, almost a year into the series, there’s a few Art Bites regulars who come to every tour whether or not they’re familiar with the topic.

StarWars.com: When you put a tour together based on Star Wars, how did you decide what pieces from the collection to include or was it because of items in the collection that you chose Star Wars as the theme?

Bethany Corriveau: I had read somewhere that George Lucas drew on Buddhist ideas when developing the Jedi and the Force. We have a great collection of Buddhist art from China, Japan, Korea, and India, so I thought that it would be easy to find works that correlated with ideas from Star Wars. Once I started researching, though, I discovered that it was a much more complex topic than I had anticipated. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of articles, blog posts, and entire books written about Buddhism in Star Wars, with ideas going far beyond what George Lucas himself seems to have drawn on, and Buddhism itself, as both a living and historical practice, exists in many different forms. To distill it down, I decided to stick to what you actually see in the movies and a very general concept of Buddhism, then went through the galleries and found objects that could relate to those concepts. There were a few things I would have liked to include for which I couldn’t find an appropriate object. Samurai, for example, have some things in common with the Jedi. The name Jedi may come from jidaigeki, or samurai stories, and the samurai code, Bushido, was influenced by Buddhism. But we didn’t have any depictions of samurai in the galleries at the time of the tour.

StarWars.com: What is your personal experience with Star Wars? When did you see it, and which film did you see first?

Bethany Corriveau: I grew up in a very geeky family so I’m pretty sure I saw the movies early on, but I don’t actually remember the first time! I might have seen the Ewok movies first. In high school, I came across a mention of them online and had an epiphany where I realized that they were actually real movies. I’d remembered a few of the scenes, but I thought I’d imagined or dreamed them after realizing they weren’t in Return of the Jedi. I saw the second trilogy in theaters as it came out. Revenge of the Sith came out while I was in France on a research trip, studying Romanesque architecture with my college advisor. I really, really wanted to see the movie so I convinced her to go to a showing at a theater in Arles. Unfortunately, there were no subtitles and I speak zero French.

StarWars.com: What advice would you give to other art museums who would like to try something similar?

Bethany Corriveau: Art Bites would have been a very different tour series if I had relied only on my own ideas. It’s been really interesting to see what everyone comes up with as more staff gets involved. Some of the tours draw out a theme; for example, an upcoming Captain America Avengers tour will look at warriors in art from different areas of the collections. Some show real-world examples of artworks from the show, as did a Downton Abbey tour that looked at decorative arts objects similar to those used by the Crawley family. And others take a purely visual approach, like in a Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tour where the group looked at a sculpture of a lion, paintings of witches, and a 17th-century Dutch wardrobe. A Mad Men tour even judged some works on the collection based on whether or not Don Draper might have hung it in his office!

If you happen to be local to Cleveland, keep up with the Art Bites tour schedule online. Bonus: the atrium of the museum was used for the Triskelion lobby in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And if you’re not near Cleveland, you can definitely search for connections to Star Wars in your local art museum.

Amy Ratcliffe is addicted to Star Wars, coffee, and writing. You can follow her on Twitter at @amy_geek and keep up with all things geeky at her blog.

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