The Lord of the Rings Exhibition in Boston Reviewed

Boston Museum of Science

This fascinating exhibition, now at the Boston Museum of Science, showcases the enormous love and respect with which the makers of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy approached J. R. R. Tolkien’s grandly mythopoetic novels. Director Peter Jackson decided early on in the production of his three-film cycle that everything in his Middle-Earth would be made from scratch, and his army of artisans (obviously all as emotionally committed to Tolkien’s work as he) created almost a thousand suits of armor, two hundred latex orc heads, hundreds of weapons, and 20,000 common and household items in a gargantuan effort stretching over several years.

Many of the most prominent costumes, props, armor and weapons featured in the films are on display in the exhibition, which fills one large room of the museum and takes 30-40 minutes to take in, or longer if you want to watch many of the very interesting video mini-documentaries dealing with everything from the fashioning of hobbit-feet to MASSIVE, the battle-generating computer program invented by Weta Digital. Everything is dramatically and colorfully lit, with written explanations that not only describe the objects and costumes but also delve into such things as the mythic similarities between Gandalf and the Norse god Odin, or the Latin and medieval origins of the word “orc” (Orcus was another name for the Roman death-god Pluto, and orc meant “hell-demon” in Anglo-Saxon. Not mentioned in the commentary is the fact that “Orc” was the English poet William Blake’s name for the spirit of violent revolution.)

Some of the everyday objects are the most interesting

There are several interactive portions of the exhibit that are especially fun for kids, such as a motion-capture demonstration where they can wave a stick around and see themselves on a screen as an elf, Gondorian, or uruk brandishing a sword (I said “kids” but I also watched a portly dad in khaki shorts doing this with a big grin on his face); an explanation of scaling and forced-perspective techniques (you can pay for a souvenir photo of yourself and a friend sitting side-by-side in front of Bag End, one of you human-sized and the other of hobbit proportions); a camera that scans the contours of your face onto one of the immense statues of the Argonath from Fellowship; and an automated voice that tells you whether you’re a dwarf, hobbit, elf, orc, or human depending on your height (it told one woman she was an “old hobbit,” which seemed rather uncomfortably close to the mark).  There were also a couple of chipper museum guides at tables gamely explaining such things as metalworking and the life-cycles of spiders. Beautiful concept sketches, paintings, and digital artwork by Alan Lee, John Howe, Paul Lasaine, and Gus Hunter from various stages in the production and pre-production adorn the walls, and various banners from Gondor and Rohan hang overhead.  

The One Ring, or The Ring of Power, grants great power to the person that holds it such as long life and the ability to become invisible. Yet it also can corrupt and deceive its wearer, tempting he or she to the dark side. Sauron, the manifestation of evil, presents constant danger as long as The One Ring exists

A dark, black, round antechamber containing nothing but the One Ring itself is marvelously sinister: the ring is suspended in the center of a transparent, illuminated column running from floor to ceiling, a sepulchral voice intones the Black Speech inscription, a ring of animated orange flames crackles around the perimeter of the room, and the projected fiery Elvish script from the ring floats here and there. Elsewhere Sauron himself, in his armored physical incarnation from the unforgettable prologue of Fellowship (has there ever been a scarier costume in all of cinema?) and backlit by flaming scarlet light, looms threateningly in front of a painting of Mordor and next to a huge model of his fortress Barad-dûr.

Visitors are equally menaced by the costume of a Ringwraith, a full-sized sculpture of Lurtz the uruk, and an enormous statue of a cave troll, the latter two created especially for the exhibition. There are maquettes of an elephantine mûmak, an uruk-hai berserker with his gigantic two-handed sword, Treebeard (there’s also a huge sculpture of his face made for the exhibit), Shelob’s mandibles, a life-sized orc head, and the cave troll, with his arms out in what the note amusingly calls the Leonardo pose. There’s a model of Saruman’s tower Orthanc that must be fifteen feet tall, and, strangely enough, the ruined Hobbiton mill prop, which is almost the size of a car, but is only seen for a grand total of about three seconds in the first film!

All along one wall are suits of armor, next to the appropriate weaponry.  Here are the arms and armor of an uruk-hai swordsman, a Moria orc, a common or garden variety orc, a warg-rider (the one in The Two Towers who gets his neck broken by Gimli), a Second Age elf, a Second Age Gondorian, a Rohan spearman, a Rohan swordsman, a Gondorian ranger, a Rohan royal guard with his green cloak and scale mail, a Third Age Gondorian soldier, and a Haradrim mûmak-rider with his bow and facemask (I loved the tiny skull-beads adorning his belt!). In one glass case are six different uruk-hai helmets, and in another, the helmets of Elendil, Isildur, Eomer, Eomer’s guard, a Gondorian citadel guard, and two Rohirrim. Also on display is Theoden’s armor, shield, and sword, various gauntlets and greaves with intricate intaglio details, a Rohan chainmail corslet, Haldir’s huge bow and sword, and some gorgeous Second Age things from the prologue of Fellowship: an Elven shield and sword along with Gil-Galad’s blue and gold shield and his spear Aiglos.
There are separate areas devoted to each major character and including their costumes, armaments, and personal items. These include the costumes of Frodo (complete with mithril vest, Sting, the Light of Eärendil, Thorin’s map and Bilbo’s book), Gandalf (the Grey, not the White), Gimli (his axes look less dinky up close), Legolas, Saruman, and Aragorn (his Ranger costume looks lived-in, probably because Viggo Mortensen slept in it for weeks, so they say). The Elven queen Galadriel’s beaded white dress is the loveliest of all the costumes, and I’m backed up in that opinion by my boss’s two young daughters Annie and Emily, as well as a little girl who I saw rapturously staring up at it: “It looks like snowflakes!” she exclaimed. Arwen has two costumes on display, her silver and suede riding costume and her blue “requiem” dress. Saruman gets a whole case of delightfully creepy clutter from his study/laboratory: horrible chitinous and squamous and tentacled things pickled in jars, bones and skulls, alchemical reagents, and that crumbling old grimoire with the picture of the Balrog in it.

Visitors get a behind-the-scenes look into the equipment used in the film including helmets worn by the characters as they entered the battle for Middle-earth

To say that the weapons, with their tiny Elvish inscriptions running along the blades, are lovingly crafted, is merely to state the obvious. The award for most impressive and elegant has to go to Arwen’s sword, in my opinion. Here’s all you really need to know about the care the weaponsmiths took with these things: Aragorn’s sword Anduril, which is newly-forged in Return of the King, is pristine-looking, whereas Gandalf’s blade Glamdring, which has been around for thousands of years, is all pitted and nicked. You can’t even see a detail like that on screen—how cool is that?

Some of the most pleasing things, to me, are the collections of small, miscellaneous everyday items, looking for all the world as if they’d been dug up at some Roman or Mycenaean archeological site rather than manufactured for a movie. A case of orc bric-a-brac includes whips, daggers, a bow, and even a bunch of eating utensils (they shouldn’t have included forks—spoons and knives, okay, but forks? No way those morons had forks). Rohan props include a saddle and saddle-blanket, half a dozen horns, a dozen different little metal buckles, and, saints preserve us, an authentic-looking velvet-lined box containing the stuff Theoden seals his letters with—his seal, wax, ink bottle, knife, and magnifying glass. If you ask me, that’s going way beyond a prop department’s call of duty and into the realm of sheer, merry lunacy.

Some other items on display, in no particular order: the rings, crowns, swords, horse-armor, and Morgul-blade of the Ringwraiths, the three Elven Rings of Power, the crowns of Elrond and Galadriel, Elrond’s telescope (!), Saruman’s palantír, a pile of prosthetics (hobbit feet, orc teeth, etc.), art-nouveau-inspired Elven objects such as Celeborn’s belt and neckpiece and an heraldic horn from Lothlórien, the shards of Narsil, the Evenstar, the Ring of Barahir, and all that damn cooking crap Sam had to lug halfway around the planet on his back. (Silly little bugger didn’t even take it off to fight the giant spider…)

The last and eeriest prop I’ll mention is the wax figure of poor dead Boromir, laid out in his canoe with sword and shield and ready to plunge over the Falls of Rauros. It’s astonishingly lifelike, so much so that there were four wide-eyed teenage girls leaning over it, all in costume for the occasion, breathing hard and fogging up the glass.

A large model of a cave troll, an evil creature in the Lord of the Rings films, is on display in The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy—The Exhibition

Who could criticize such a labor of love? I tried to think of something, anything, the exhibit left out, and all I could come up with is the Balrog and the King of the Dead. A maquette of the former and the costume of the latter would have been nice. And also a suit of Easterling armor. The $20 adult admission price is fairly steep, but you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. Fans of the films and books will find more than enough here to wonder at and admire. 

The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy: The Exhibition is at Boston Museum of Science, 1 August—24 October 2004. Check the official site for details.

Images Copyright NLP, Inc.

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