May Fourth is informally the Star Wars Day holiday, which random brands typically use to hawk their wares. Although it’s not as bad as the promotions that come out of the woodwork on April Fools’ Day, I think I’m drawing the line at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum adding an X-wing Starfighter from Star Wars to its collection. The museum announced today that the famous ship would be going on display in 2022, via a prop loan from the Disney-owned production company, Lucasfilm.
The Smithsonian says the X-wing in question is from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and will be displayed outside the museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium after undergoing “conservation in the Restoration Hangar in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.”
The first red flag I’d like to get out of the way: an X-wing from The Rise of Skywalker? Really? The final film in the Skywalker Saga is not exactly beloved, but we don’t really need to rehash that here. That’s what Reddit is for, and now, probably, my email inbox. What’s striking about calling out The Rise of Skywalker to me is it really adds to the general feeling that including this spaceship is an advertising opportunity for Disney rather than some kind of grand contribution to our national memory of space travel. Of course Disney wants to continue to advertise its most recent Star Wars film — it’s got a franchise to maintain.
“Despite taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars introduced generations of fans here on Earth to outer space as a setting for adventure and exploration,” shared Margaret Weitekamp, Smithsonian space history chair. That’s undoubtedly true. Star Wars has had a huge impact on how people think about space, and Disney, with everything it’s made and purchased, has made about as big an impression on culture as a billion-dollar company can make. But that doesn’t keep this all from feeling a little icky.
Space and air travel have long been driven by public and private partnerships (see NASA’s current dealings with SpaceX), and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum even has other Disney products in its collection, like a Buzz Lightyear toy that’s been to space and a Donald Duck Air Force patch. But I come to museums like the Smithsonian for the pieces of history and culture I don’t know about — the hidden triumphs, failures, and once-in-a-lifetime chances that lead to impressive things like landing people on the Moon.
Not long ago, the Smithsonian hosted the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the pod that returned three astronauts to Earth from mankind’s first trip to the Moon in 1969. The museum also currently has the LM-2, the second Lunar Module that was used in ground tests on Earth. These are all real spacecraft, and that’s not even counting the satellites, payloads, and other space ephemera that the Smithsonian has on hand.
It’s not that Star Wars or the X-wing aren’t cool, good, or significant. It’s that yielding physical and mental space to a product that’s meant to be sold rather than something that’s actually a part of human history feels like it distracts from the more meaningful pieces in the Smithsonian’s collection. Leave the props to the movies or Disney’s own curatorial efforts. I don’t think we’d be any worse for it.