With the reopening of EMP Museum’s sci-fi gallery this spring, visitors may experience a universe unbounded by space and time. A massive airlock-style door opens into Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction, the spaceship-like exhibit space, as if it has plunged right through the metal panels of Frank Gehry’s sculptural exterior, burrowing harmlessly down to the museum’s lowest floor. There, greeted by ambient noise reminiscent of how 1970s science-fictioneers imagined time travel sounded, voyagers browse intergalactic artifacts assembled across time, displayed in every nook and detail of the spacecraft’s fuselage. Although they won’t see and hear the machinations behind this transporting gallery, the process of filtering imagination through unique time and spatial constraints set the stage for all of it. At EMP, the culture of producing a new space is as important as the experiences of culture it produces.
Brooks Peck, a former entertainment journalist, supplied the imagination behind the gallery renovation. An EMP curator now in his 11th year at the museum, his journalism background makes him a pro at the studied, topical deep-dive, and his storytelling through experiential media commands an audience. Peck honed his vision for the renovation of the sci-fi gallery through a writing exercise. To guide the gallery’s design team, he penned a short news-style piece which opens with a comet chaser’s discovery of the “Corvus Object,” an anomaly spotted near ß Crv. Observed from afar, the global astronomical community is beguiled by the specimen. When a space crew is sent to investigate, rather than a comet they discover a travel-battered spacecraft. Upon entering the vehicle, the crew discovers a cabin full of time travel artifacts gathered from pop culture portrayals of space travel across many decades (and the millennia they imagined). EMP visitors are beckoned to explore the gallery as if members of the spacecraft’s crew.
Visitors would never guess the challenges its designers and engineers confronted while translating Peck’s vision. Modestly sized at 4,000 square feet, the gallery comprises a large room and two smaller alcove-like areas. Before the renovation, low ceilings and bulky rectangular columns hemmed the space, as did a raised floor, covered HVAC unit and bathroom. In his renderings of Peck’s concepts, working closely with the facilities team, gallery designer Eli Stillson transformed obstacles into key mobilizers of theme and experience. He designed display cabinets to sheath the columns, creating four-sided viewing holds for time’s artifacts. The team installed hundreds of LED bulbs beneath sections of the raised floor, sending up diffuse light through its seams, simulating limitlessness beneath visitors’ feet. They exposed the HVAC unit to add to the mechanical nature of the spacecraft’s look and also the sounds of time and space travel. In one section the designers peeled away the drop ceiling to open up additional “galactic” space, now filled with a planetary projection globe. Standing at a computer screen mounted podium, explorers may set the ship’s sights on many possible projected, rotating planets — those known within our galaxy as well as those imagined in earlier pop culture portrayals. The bathroom, an artifact from when the building’s lower level housed administrative offices, has been removed.
Since he joined the museum as an audio engineer in 2000, James Vegas, EMP’s head of facilities, notes that these sorts of structural evolutions have been constant as the museum grows. For Vegas and facilities supervisor Teni Leist, managing growth within the undulating Gehry exoskeleton is an engaging curatorial challenge all its own. Whether an exhibit is under installation or in their ongoing stewardship, the team balances infrastructure considerations with curatorial imagination in an open and collaborative way. Far from simple technicians, the members of this team are part of EMP’s vital creative force fostering its experiential purpose.
“I see this building as a living organism, and every day you come to work, you’ll be challenged with something — operationally, mechanically,” noted Vegas in a February interview. “It’s a unique building, and I feel a lot of pride in it, meeting the challenge to keep it looking great.”
Leist agreed: “A huge part of our purpose is to work the Gehry materials, moods, shapes into everything we do inside the building.”
Among the museum’s three galleries of the fantastic (the others tackle horror and fantasy), the new sci-fi gallery immerses visitors in a world of time and space travel through smell, touch and sound. However, the collaborative work it took to create this small marvel is cleverly hidden by the team’s success in creating a space that is truly “out of this world.”
For those interested in the overlap between spatial and organizational design, the subtle-ties of the team’s successes within constraints may be the more interesting exhibit: a creative process that began with writing and study yielded to rendering and consideration of materials and forms that will last, followed by Tetris-like installation maneuvers as gallery infrastructure was readied. Each step required collaboration across teams. Each step supported immediate and long-term considerations for the building’s stewardship. And, each step ultimately advanced one part of EMP’s mission: to explore science fiction in a way no one has ever done before.