The Game Of Thrones Exhibition And The New Way We Consume Stories
Posted on Friday July 26, 2013, 13:08 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
A few weeks I was over in Northern Ireland and went to see the Game Of Thrones exhibition at Titanic Belfast. This location is not to be confused with the Titanic, which was built in Belfast but now lies under the north Atlantic, nor Titanic Studios where Game Of Thrones has its base, although that's visible from the gallery. The Titanic centre is the flagship (no pun intended) of efforts by Northern Ireland Tourism to get people to visit the province, and Game Of Thrones and its temporary exhibition is now a part of its success. It got me thinking about the way we express fandom now and the way our relationship to our favourite shows and films is changing.
For those who haven't yet watched the show, HBO's Game Of Thrones is a massively popular, spectacularly bloody fantasy series that is based in Northern Ireland. There's extensive location shooting around the province, with sleepy Ballintoy harbour playing the main port of the scary-ass Iron Islands, the Dark Hedges doubling as the King's Road and Shane's Castle playing all manner of Westeros waypoints. Obviously the sunnier scenes are shot variously in Malta and Morocco, while some of the wilder landscapes require Iceland and Croatia, but Northern Ireland has claimed the series as its own and vice versa. Titanic Studios, first brought into major use for the filming of City Of Embers a few years back, has almost doubled in size and become the base for the show for the foreseeable future. The launch party for this exhibition was attended by the First Minister of the province, giving you some idea of its importance to the area.
Northern Irish tourism has received a much-needed boost from the show, which is nice: honestly, there's some spectacular scenery around and it's not all sectarian murals. They've even put together a touring itinerary of the locations you can visit. And the exhibition is a good one: as well as the obvious props and costumes they have some unexpected touches (a model of Ned Stark's head almost hidden above eye level, a handwritten letter that's readable in the flesh if not onscreen) and interactive stuff - you can fire an arrow and start the Battle of the Blackwater if you're so minded. But what's most interesting to me is that this sort of stuff is becoming more the rule than the exception, with fandom expressing itself in new and less obvious ways.
For instance, this is not the only exhibition of props. We've already had similarly lavish travelling displays for the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, as well as perennial exhibits of Bond cars and Bat technology and a fantastic Pixar art exhibition that began at MOMA in New York. The Warner Bros Studio Tour at Leavesden has sought to institutionalise our fascination with behind-the-scenes artistry, displaying the sets and props from Harry Potter (although in future they plan to include other productions as well) in a way that's designed less to make you think you're there and more to show you how they did it. The Game Of Thrones exhibition is smaller in scale than that, of course, but it's still putting the behind-the-scenes efforts of the crew in front of a new audience.
In a way it's strange that it's taken so long for such things to happen. After all, the Universal Studio Tour and its ilk have been running for decades, are perennially popular and show that people like to peek behind the Hollywood curtain. There's a fascination with both the lengths that filmmakers go to to build their own reality and the limitations of what we see onscreen - the realisation of just how small some epic sets are can be just as impressive as if they were full-size.
You quickly realise when seeing these artefacts in the flesh that there is real art involved: the costume designers, production designers, set dressers and armourers of these properties are geniuses and their work deserves to be showcased instead of immediately recycled for the next series. If you ever needed evidence that the auteur theory has its limits, this sort of exhibition offers that in spades.
But this fascination with props and locations ties in to something else as well. As fandom has changed and geekiness has become more mainstream, the way we express our fandom has shifted. It's hard to imagine anyone seriously being questioned for going to an exhibition of movie props and costumes nowadays; it's just the daytrip equivalent of watching DVD extras, a fairly respectable and normal activity. For geek-friendly and beautifully designed titles, it's an obvious adjunct to the normal round of marketing and press to put your assets on display. Because everyone's a tiny bit geekier than they used to be, geeks can go a little further without seeming unusual.
It's the same impulse that makes Comic-Con such a huge event, as we saw last week. Again, there were props and costumes scattered about various displays in the Hall; companies like Sideshow Collectables lined up painstakingly detailed recreations of characters and weaponry and generally take verisimilitude to new levels; people dressed up in homemade but breathtakingly convincing costumes. The same attitude also runs through Etsy and sites like Fashionably Geek, which take geek properties and reinvent them in interesting ways, gender-swapping character costumes, spinning art off existing titles and coming up with wildly different approaches to iconic looks.
In some ways it's as though we keep trying to get ever closer to these worlds that we love, like there's some sort of reality barrier we can get closer and closer to and one day push through (LARPers and fan-fic writers will, presumably, be first through the wall). It's not that geeks and fans are unaware of the fictional nature of these things we love - whatever the naysayers think, geekdom and insanity are distinct - but there is still a sense of near-reverence for the actual props, the most realistic recreations, the artefacts of our fandom. It really is possible to be starstruck by a throne.
Being in the middle of something like the Game Of Thrones exhibition, or Comic-Con, gives geeks a sense that they're not alone, that they're part of a shared and tangible reality. That feeling may be fleeting, and may be wholly illusory, but for those of us with a love of these fantastic dreams we see on screen, it's still a trip worth taking.