Keeping C-3PO in Shape at the Smithsonian

GW professor helped conserve droid’s original costume from iconic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.

Mary Coughlin at the National Museum of American History. (GW Today/Logan Werlinger)
Mary Coughlin at the National Museum of American History. (GW Today/Logan Werlinger)
December 14, 2015

As a character in the “Star Wars” films, he has survived six—soon to be seven—movies’ worth of adventures in distant galaxies. But by the time C-3PO, George Lucas’s iconic protocol droid, made it to a display case in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he was slightly the worse for wear.

Fortunately, someone stepped in to rescue him from the ravages of time: Mary Coughlin, now an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at the George Washington University.

“We just saw him one afternoon and thought, ‘Let’s bring him into the lab,’” said Ms. Coughlin, who was then, in 2005, part of a team working in Preservation Services’ Objects Conservation Laboratory in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The job was a dream for Ms. Coughlin, an objects conservator who has loved the museum since she visited it as a child. A love of history drew Ms. Coughlin to the field of conservation, and during her tenure at NAMH she would find herself working on everything from a bazooka to a pair of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leg braces.

The conservators’ original plan for C-3PO, she said, was simply to build a new structure for his interior. The costume, worn by actor Anthony Daniels in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984 and had begun, inevitably, to show signs of age.

Its flexible rubber torso had hardened to a rigid shell. The iconic gold “skin”—created, like many trophies and awards, with a process called vacuum metallization—showed orange discoloration. The polyurethane mannequin inside the suit had degraded, making it difficult to remove.

The conservators had to take off what pieces they could, using the original costumer’s dressing instructions as a guide, and carefully carve the rest of the armature free with a jeweler’s saw. When they did, they found a surprise.

“The ’84 mannequin was a woman,” Ms. Coughlin remembered. “That was kind of a shock—when the torso came apart, we saw a little breast bump. I talked to one of the conservators who was there at the time, and he said it was the only one they had that was petite enough. That’s how slim and narrow Anthony Daniels is.”

Creating a new, stable form on which to rebuild the costume posed its own challenges. Any pre-made mannequin would have to be retrofitted. The most petite women’s mannequins were slim enough in the torso to work, but the shoulders would have to be broadened to make C-3PO’s arms hang properly. In the end, the conservators fit a metal extension to the mannequin’s shoulders and then used an electric carver—“like a meat carver,” Ms. Coughlin said—to cut its hips down to the correct size. They softened the form with cotton padding, swaddled it tightly in cotton stockinette, and re-dressed it in the costume’s original black leotard. Their task, as they had first conceived it, was complete.

By then, however, the scope of Ms. Coughlin’s project had begun to expand.

“The longer you work with an object, the more you see,” she said. “So the fact that the costume was a bit discolored in spots, and darker, became more and more distracting. That raised a new issue: okay, we’ve stabilized it, we’ve done the preservation we set out to do, but is there an aesthetic concern?”

It was a complex question. Had the color shifts occurred during filming? If so, were they evidence of use that should therefore be left alone? Would a shiny, pristine C-3PO—stripped of its original materials and recreated with new ones—no longer be representative of the time it came from?

And what about “Star Wars” director George Lucas’s original artistic intention? “C-3PO is mostly gold, but one of the calves is silver. That was intentional and you wouldn’t want to change it,” Ms. Coughlin said. “But we didn’t think it was intentional that the back of his head would be this really dark mottled orange.”

So the team of conservators did the necessary scientific and historical research. They compared the costume to the color slides that had come with it when acquired by the Smithsonian. They watched “Star Wars” movies—“It was serious research!” Ms. Coughlin said—to see how the robot looked on film. They did chemical analysis of the suit’s gold coating to determine its composition. Ms. Coughlin called an archivist at Lucasfilm, who invited her to California to view other C-3PO costumes of a similar age.

In the end, the team cleaned the suit and used an aluminum leaf, painstakingly applied with a squirrel-hair brush, and layers of tinted shellac to re-gild the discolored areas.

C-3PO now stands in the museum’s “American Stories” exhibit next to Dorothy’s red shoes from “The Wizard of Oz” and Kermit the Frog, gazing benevolently down at his stream of visitors and fans. His gold coating has an authentic gleam without seeming factory-new.

“It’s funny, because originally the work was all going to be structural—something no one would ever know we did—and then it became this huge aesthetic project,” Ms. Coughlin said. “But that’s one thing that’s great about this work. When you get into something, you can’t anticipate what it will become.”