Science museum

The Science Museum’s Sci-Fi Exhibit Makes Us Shine

From Brave New Worlds (and a Dalek or two) to the latest Science Museum blockbuster.

Imagine that you are in the future area of ​​the crystal maze. But instead of fiendish escape room puzzles and crystal rewards, you have some of film and TV’s most iconic treasures to explore. This is the atmosphere of the Science Museum‘s new exhibition, Science Fiction: Journey to the Edge of the Imagination.

This is a spectacle with more twists and turns than a space basilisk, as we step out of our shuttle pod and explore the corridors and antechambers of a curatorial maze (or “Azimuth” spaceship to maintain vanity of the exhibition). The set is somewhat theatrical, but packs a lot of substance to balance out the style.

Two spacesuits.  The one on the left is heavily armored and gilded.  The one on the right is a white Apollo moon costume
A heavily armored Sunshine spacesuit sits next to a replica of Eugene Cernan’s Apollo suit.

The first rooms offer a constellation of hit sci-fi props and costumes, bringing us closer to the familiar. Many of the A-listers are here: a Dalek or two, a model of the Starship Enterprise, the alien from Alien, the real Darth Vader mask. Like a flight through an asteroid field, the hits keep coming.

But as our trek progresses, the subtlety and substance sets in. The imaginary aliens remain low key for a while, giving more space to human stories and historical artifacts. The curators have done a particularly good job of weaving exhibits with black and Asian connections, which is refreshing in a genre traditionally dominated by white Western perspectives.

Two album covers with Janelle Monáe in sci-fi attire
Album covers for Janelle Monáe that play on sci-fi imagery.

The show is at its best when it displays real science alongside the film. Gene-editing technology slips by GATTACA posters; a model of the Cheops exoplanet-hunting telescope flies over displays on alien worlds. One of Prometheus’ stasis modules sits alongside information on therapeutic hypothermia. Famous cyborgs (including Vader) are lined up next to medical prostheses. Etc.

Four clocks tell the time in three sci-fi realms and the science museum
It’s an exhibit with lots of fun details.

The interpretation is excellent. Explanatory labels and contextual information will satisfy an adult audience, while a deliberately glitchy fake AI called ALANN, which appears in every room, should keep kids informed and entertained. Touchscreens include a chance to play with a warp core and a playful look at the Drake Equation (which estimates the number of technological civilizations in the universe).

Say hello to ALANN

Inevitably, with such a vast subject, the exhibition is defined as much by what is missing as by what has been cut. Why Are You, Terminator, Blade Runner, Avatar, Dune, Jurassic Park, [insert 1,000 other possibilities]? But, of course, there is not much space and it will be necessary to buy the catalog of the exhibition for a more in-depth treatment. The only thing I really missed was the science fiction origins material (plus a little display of old books), which might have helped set the scene. It’s probably a separate exhibit in its own right, though. Besides, I really wanted a guided tour of the TARDIS. Why can’t I get a glimpse of the TARDIS?

A robot with a glowing chest
One of I, Robot’s androids.

After a fairly somber room about dystopian futures and catastrophe (including a deformed metal cup recovered from Hiroshima), the show ends on a more upbeat and peaceful note. The last room incorporates a huge high definition view of the Earth from orbit, as if we were looking at the planet from a space platform. It’s a curious choice to end an exhibition of strange new worlds with a look at the old and familiar. But it’s also perfect. As TS Eliot said, “We won’t stop exploring, and the end of all our exploring will be to get to where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination is at the Science Museum until 4 May 2023. Standard admission price £20. Oh, and watch out for the many “Easter Eggs” scattered throughout the show.