Touring the Future: Star Trek: The Exhibition

Star Trek: The Exhibition is a traveling exhibit of ship models, props, set recreations, and costumes from the 43-year history of the franchise, from all five series and eleven movies. Its website claims this to be the largest such collection of “authentic Star Trek artifacts and information ever put on public display,” but it’s unknown if that indicates the combined features of its various installations. The Exhibition is produced by Premier Exhibitions Inc, and is currently in the second year of its “five-year mission” of touring the United States, appropriately enough visiting space centers and museums around the country. Having completed stints at San Diego Air & Space and the Arizona Science Center, it is currently open at the Detroit Science Center in Detroit, Michigan (through September 13) and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (through September 20).

Because the Exhibition is split up across two venues, each features different collections and may consequently result in a different experience. The Detroit Science Center includes a detailed recreation of the Bridge of the Enterprise NCC-1701 (As Scotty says in the TNG episode “Relics”: “No bloody A, B, C, or D.”), recreations of Captain Picard’s quarters (TNG), Picard’s command chair, and a full-scale replica of the 1701-D transporter room. In comparison, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia highlights Kirk’s command chair (TOS), the Bridge of the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, and recreations of Sickbay and Engineering. Both attractions offer a Star Trek ride in a full-motion flight simulator (for an extra fee). I gather that many of these installations are similar to those at the Las Vegas Star Trek: The Experience themed attraction, which closed in September 2008 and is slated to reopen sometime next year in the Neonopolis Mall.

Sadly, photography is not allowed anywhere in the Exhibit, but you can have your picture taken in the captain’s chair, on the Bridge, or on the transporter (there’s a green screen set at the Franklin Institute) for an exorbitant fee. They aren’t asking for gold-pressed latinum, but they may as well; though the photographers are cagey about admitting their prices while taking your photo, on checkout you’ll discover packages include two digital prints for about $27, or one for $22. On a totally unrelated note, staff does not confiscate cell phones or digital cameras, and security officers are only slightly more attentive than those on the Enterprise—at least at the Franklin Institute, which I had the opportunity to visit last month.

From the slideshow on the official website, things you won’t see in Philadelphia include a Klingon command chair; Nichelle Nichols’s TOS uniform; 1701-D corridors; Picard’s first season uniform and dress uniform; uniforms and costumes from Deep Space Nine (Sisko’s fifth season uniform and a Kai’s outfit); uniforms from Voyager (Neelix and Seven of Nine); Harlan Ellison’sTM Guardian of Forever; Borg prosthetics; ship models including Klingon birds-of-prey and shuttles, 1701-D, the refit 1701-A, and a freaking Borg cube. Okay, I feel cheated. Go to Detroit!

But if your transporter is offline and you can’t make it to Detroit in time, the Franklin Institute is still worthwhile, though your mileage may vary depending on your relationship with the assorted series. Some highlights for me were the Borg Queen’s costume from Star Trek: First Contact; Klingon weaponry; a Dabo table from Quark’s bar (DS9); uniforms and costumes from the shows and movies; various face masks, including Odo and Neelix; and a collection of combadges. The exhibit is heavily focused on costumes, and there’s a good assortment of them. Ruk’s muumuu from “What Are Little Girl’s Made Of?” was there, along with Deanna Troi’s dresses (which are even more hideous in person), Khan’s chest-baring outfit, the Grand Nagus Zek’s clothing, and even uniforms from the new Star Trek movie. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of props from Star Trek: Nemesis, including the disassembled B-4, though happily Enterprise was downplayed a bit.

The Exhibit is billed as a “History of the Future,” perhaps taking a page from the Star Trek Chronology by Michael and Denise Okuda, Star Trek experts who defined much of the look of the TNG-era series. (Don’t miss some “Okudagrams,” easter eggs hidden in the display panels in the exhibit!) As such, it provides a mixed experience for hardcore and casual fans, though it should appeal to both. Some background information on the series is provided, mainly in videos running throughout the exhibit hall, but most of the placards identifying the props treat them as historical artifacts and describe the series events as though they happened (or will happen?). They’re also peppered with typos. In addition, the Exhibition features information about real world science and technology that both inspired and was inspired by Star Trek, such as the US and Russian space programs and cell phones. A teaching guide is available on the website for grades 4-12 for those who would like to justify a class trip to the Exhibition. Hopefully the students will be less bored by the factual material than I was.

In the end, I felt there wasn’t quite enough new information for dedicated fans (who admittedly know everything already) and the wrong kinds of information for casual visitors—including “spoilers” for some of the series. But the exhibit was also much larger than I had expected, so it has something for everyone; just when you think you’ve reached the end, you turn a corner and suddenly you’re on the Bridge. Then when you exit through where Picard’s ready room should be, you’re in another vast room that has more stuff crammed into it.

A major disappointment for me was the fact that so many of the props were replicas based on the originals; I suppose they sold off all the actual props used in the series at the Christie’s auction in 2006. They also call this an “interactive exhibit,” but for the most part this means walking around and touching things, though the site mentions interactive kiosks. It would have been fun to play with a touchscreen panel giving access to the LCARS database, but I guess those are all in Detroit.

There’s a scene in First Contact where Picard and Data visit the Phoenix, the first warp-capable ship, in their own past (but still our future). Picard can’t help touching it:

Picard: It’s a boyhood fantasy… I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian but I was never able to touch it.
Data: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?
Picard: Oh, yes! For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.
Data: I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing… temperature variations in the fuel manifold… it is no more “real” to me now than it was a moment ago.
Troi (spotting them): Would you three like to be alone?

For most of us, exhibits like this are the closest we can get to being a part of Star Trek. The Exhibition urges you to “reconnect with your own spirit of adventure,” and I have to say it succeeds at least in that; browsing their collection of props and allowing all that useless trivia to resurface in my mind, I began to remember the things I loved best about Star Trek. And so I left the Franklin Institute, expensive souvenir photos in hand, already looking forward to revisiting the future on my viewscreen at home.

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About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.