scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Can’t get to the museum? The museum may be coming to you

From “Star Wars and the Power of Costumes” exhibit.Paul Martinka

DENVER — The museum-quality descriptions talk of influences from pre-Raphaelite fashion to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and from Fascist uniforms to US Air Force jumpsuits.

The objects in front of which the labels hang aren’t from any of those periods or places, however.

These are costumes, props, and even characters (Yoda,
C-3PO, R2-D2, BB-8, a furry Ewok) from the Star Wars films.

And that’s not the only thing about them that’s from galaxies far, far away.

On loan to the Denver Art Museum from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the yet-to-open Lucas Museum of Narrative Art planned for Los Angeles, they’re part of the sudden fast rise of the traveling exhibition.


Can’t get to the museum?
The museum may be coming
to you.

Some of the most interesting items from museum collections are increasingly going on the road, meaning you can see them when you travel in places you might not expect.

If you happen to be headed to Jackson, Miss., for instance, there’s a Smithsonian show there, too, at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, about a 48-foot, 1½-ton snake called the Titanaboa, complete with an actual-size replica; it will later slither off from there to Utah and Colorado.

Starting in the fall and leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon, the Smithsonian will also loan out the Apollo 11 command module; that famous spaceship touches down in Houston on Oct. 14 and then will travel to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

“Could people plan their vacations around traveling exhibitions? Absolutely,” said Myriam Springuel, director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions Service, or SITES.

Large museums have long swapped parts of their collections. What’s different now is that the trend is trickling down to smaller ones, worldwide, and to places that are not museums at all, such as the sub-basement exhibition space at Discovery Times Square that hosted the Star Wars costume retrospective before it blasted off for Denver.


Paul Martinka

It’s being driven by the need to change things up and draw new audiences—and by the money museums and, increasingly, private companies can make from loaning out their stuff.

“Just like anyplace that’s regularly frequented by the public, museums need to give people a reason to come back. The idea is to keep it fresh,” said Tom Zaller, president of Imagine Exhibitions, one of that growing number of private companies that are helping museums do this.

Hosting such exhibits “is a really important way museums connect with their audiences. It’s something new for the museum to do that provides a new and different experience, and museums are getting pretty clever and creative about it,” said Rob Stein, executive vice president and chief program officer at the American Alliance of Museums.

These are especially noteworthy times for traveling collections. Among other things, SITES is commemorating its 65th anniversary. An ambitious Google-financed interactive show about robots developed by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, is on the road. So is a traveling exhibit marking the centennial of the Boeing Company.

And there’s much more to come, according to a report about traveling exhibitions by the Arts Council England.

Experts and observers say the increasingly mobile museum could be likened to the food truck and pop-up movements, which bring new things to unaccustomed places.


Sometimes museums don’t send their items very far from home at all — except in context. The Centre Pompidou took objects from its collection to a Paris suburb and put them under circus-style blue and orange tents. The Guggenheim set up temporary shop in a park between the East Village and the Bowery. The Detroit Institute of Art hung life-sized reproductions of some of its best-known paintings on the exterior walls of commercial buildings and in other spaces in towns and cities around Michigan. And the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art controversially celebrated street art in a warehouse space in L.A.’s Little Tokyo.

But hugely ambitious and much larger traveling museum exhibits are increasingly being shared all over the planet among science, art, and natural history museums of all sizes, and even parks, casinos, and shopping centers.

The “Robot Revolution” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.J.B. Spector/Museum of Science

At a time when they’re looking to diversify their income, museums can make good money from loaning out their holdings; the Smithsonian, for instance, charges $400,000 for its Star Wars exhibit per five-month booking period. Traveling exhibits also draw new customers — which museums are also trying hard to do — and, in the case of blockbuster shows, big crowds. And they can attract more buzz than permanent collections; the UK study found that this was even more important to museums than earning a financial return.

Traveling exhibits “are revenue generating, they’re a great way to associate your brand with a great product, and they’re an opportunity for museums to bring in new audiences,” said Anne Rashford, director of special exhibitions at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.


They also give these customers “an urgency” to come, “because it’s not like the coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry that will always be there. The [traveling] show will eventually close at some point.”

Zaller said that he foresees people crafting travel plans around seeing some of these traveling exhibits.

“Certainly there are seasonalities of things — food festivals like Taste of Chicago — and they are deciding factors for people who travel,” he said. “I believe things that are happening in museums are like that, too.”

Contemporary subjects are particularly popular. Imagine Exhibitions, for example, has 28 of them rotating among museums and other venues, including one about the Jurassic World films, one about The Hunger Games, one called “Angry Birds Universe” and another of artifacts from the Titanic.

The Boeing centennial exhibit, “Above and Beyond,” is now at the Witte Museum in San Antonio after spending last summer at the company’s birthplace, Seattle, then taking off for Chicago, where Boeing is now headquartered, and where it was hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry. “Robot Revolution,” which debuted at that museum, meanwhile, has moved along to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and will head back to Chicago May 11 before barnstorming some more.

The “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” exhibit showcases 70-plus outfits — more than there seemed characters in the seven Star Wars movies. There’s Queen Amidala’s throne room gown and her handmaidens’ dresses from Phantom Menace, the familiar storm trooper armor and the Fascist-looking uniforms of their officers, the orange jumpsuits of Luke Skywalker and the other rebel pilots, Han Solo’s vest and gun belt, plus a coterie of weapons including ion blasters and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s and Darth Vader’s light sabers, and Vader’s iconic black mask.


Wandering visitors from all over the world murmur in various languages with an occasional recognizable “Jabba,” “Leia,” or “Chewbacca.”

Paul Martinka

This show won’t ever actually end up in the Smithsonian itself. After Denver, it moves on to Cincinnati and then St. Petersburg, Florida.

Other traveling exhibits aren’t very distant at all.

One, organized by the San Antonio Museum of Art, has brought to the Worcester Art Museum a treasure trove of paintings, sculpture and other objects that follow the spread of Catholicism in the Spanish colonies of what is now South America. The Worcester museum will also borrow works painted by Winslow Homer when he lived for two years in England, alongside paintings by English artists active at the same time; that show, which opens in November, will then move to Milwaukee.

Smith College’s museum of art will be the only East Coast stop for a traveling exhibit assembled by the University of Texas of 200 objects from the villas of the Roman rich who vacationed near Pompeii during the age of the emperor Nero, and that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79—including some that may have once belonged to the family of Nero’s second wife.

And you don’t have to go to New York to see a rare exhibit of Henry David Thoreau’s journals, which will move from the Morgan Library and Museum there to the Concord Museum Sept. 29.

Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich teamed up last summer with two private companies, Exhibits Development Group and Cosprop, to also focus on costumes, with “CUT! Costume and the Cinema,” a show of more than 40 outfits worn by stars including Johnny Depp (in Pirates of the Caribbean), Robert Downey, Jr. (in Sherlock Holmes), and others. Next year it will host a traveling exhibit of children’s book art organized by the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

“We’re all realizing that our core constituents are getting more and more familiar with our collections, and part of our responsibility is to bring them new things,” said Ellen Spear, Heritage’s president and CEO.

The Heritage Museum also loaned out one of its treasures last spring for display in a spot that is as high-profile as they get: President William Howard Taft’s 1909 steam car, the first official White House vehicle, which was parked in a glass box on the Mall in Washington between the National Air & Space Museum and National Gallery of Art as part of a “Cars at the Capital” exhibition.

Spear said she met a family on the Mall that occasionally vacations on Cape Cod, but knew nothing of the museum’s extensive permanent collection of antique and classic automobiles.

“I hope we might have converted them into visitors,” she said. Any opportunity we have to be able to share these extraordinary objects, we take advantage of that.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at