Covered head-to-toe in black armor, Darth Vader has become one of the most recognizable images from the “Star Wars” universe. Costume makers used fiberglass to create the villain's dramatic flared helmet, which attaches to a plastic face mask painted black and gunmetal silver. A second version of the helmet was created for scenes that required a greater range of vision, French said.
“Even though they had these bubble lenses that were plastic for [the actor] to see through, his vision was still very restricted, so they made one helmet where underneath the cheeks and the mouth area is actually a type of plastic that is black but you can see through it. And so it gave the actor more range of vision for all the stunts,” she said.
Though Darth Vader is briefly unmasked on-screen, the character's enduring appeal is largely inextricable from his iconic armored look, French noted; in effect, the costume becomes the character.
“Darth Vader then becomes this great icon for evil. And he's masked, which makes it even better, because it's not an actor's face, so it's more generic … an iconic image,” she said. “And same with the stormtroopers, the faceless evil. And I think that is why it's with us to this day and we reference it time and time again, and kids growing up kind of get it intuitively and organically, and also rediscovering ‘Star Wars' even now.”
Keeping the story alive
Once filming has wrapped and costumes are retired, museums often take on the task of preserving these icons for future generations. For a public that demands authenticity in even its newest relics, original artifacts are irreplaceable.
“Our goal is really to do very little,” French said. “We don't want it to be a copy of itself, we want the original integrity of the piece there. So we'd rather reglue or reattach an item rather than replace it and remold and make a new one.”
The Lucas Museum's plastic items are fortunately some of the more stable pieces in the collection, French said. But there is an intrinsic challenge in preserving artifacts much longer than their intended lifespan.
“Our museums — and most museums — are collecting increasing amounts of plastic now as plastic becomes more and more and more common,” Odile Madden, a research scientist at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute, told Plastics News. “And once something enters a Smithsonian collection — it could be a plastic disposable fork — but if it were to enter a Smithsonian collection, we transform its service life from a few hours to in perpetuity. So things in the Smithsonian collections we store in theory forever.”
Madden studies the long-term stability of plastics and works to develop non-invasive, non-destructive methods of identifying the material an artifact is made of. Since plastic is a relatively young material in museum years, museums are still learning how some plastic materials will behave over time, she said. And because plastics come in a myriad of formulations, each with their own unique vulnerabilities, choosing the best preservation methods is not always a simple process.
“The first challenge we have is actually understanding what the plastic is,” she said. “What they used in 1976 for the first Star Wars film is not necessarily what they'd be using today. So trying to figure out what the polymer is, if there are plasticizers added, what kinds of stabilizers, fillers, pigments — all of that is something I look into. And I do that by working in the laboratory with analytical instrumentation.”
Museums tend to focus on preventative conservation to slow the process of degradation, Madden said. By controlling conditions in storage and in galleries — heat, humidity, light levels and dust all impact the deterioration process — museums will ideally delay or reduce the need for repairs, which carry their own set of complications.
“If the plastic should break or distort, it becomes really a challenge to intervene after the fact,” Madden said. “So for example some of those stormtrooper helmets are made of HDPE … it's very hard to adhere to polyethylene, so we wouldn't want a situation where we had that cracked. And some of these plastics are actually quite difficult to repair, so we'd like to stop any kind of shrinking, cracking, distortion from happening in the first place.”
As emblems of culture, movie props and costumes take on meaning beyond “plastic armor” or “fiberglass helmet,” Madden noted.
“The movie studios — Lucasfilm and others — they make immense amounts of plastics in their costumes and their props, and these become the movie. The story becomes sort of immortal, and the look of the thing becomes somewhat immortal,” Madden said. “But what happens to all these props and costumes over time? And which ones should be preserved and which ones shouldn't and how should they be preserved?
“There's this interesting interplay of objects that were meant to make this intangible art project — a movie — but then the object takes on value of having been a prop in the movie, but also being the embodiment of [the world of the movie]. So like the stormtrooper costume. It is the stormtrooper.”