The pairing of a history museum and a 20,000-square-foot exhibition devoted to “The Hunger Games” saga might seem curious at first. After all, the story of Katniss Everdeen is set in a fictional future rather than the factual past.
But if you take a tour of “The Hunger Games: The Exhibition” at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the stunning and meticulously crafted visuals of the films, and the complicated, real-world roots of one of the most popular book and movie series in, yes, history.
And that’s if you’re not already a “Hunger Games” fan.
If, like me, you know your Jabberjays from your Tracker Jackers, “The Hunger Games: The Exhibition” is a squeal-inducing nerd-out with your name on it — perhaps written on a card in one of the reaping bowls on display next to Effie Trinket’s costume from the first movie.
That outfit, which in the sad, Earth-tone world of District 12 constitutes a kind of assault in fuchsia, is one of 46 costumes displayed in a series of galleries devoted to various settings from the films.
Jennifer Lawrence is the star of the four “Hunger Games” movies, but one of the primary stars of the exhibition is costume designer Judiana Makovsky, whose work is on gorgeous display, particularly in the clothes worn by the residents of the oppressive Capitol.
Makovsky told Vogue in 2012, “I just thought it would be funny if these people, who have such a vicious streak in them, are sort of covered in flowers and ruffles.”
The re-created settings are as detailed and vivid as the costumes. The Hob feels like a hardscrabble general store. In the lavish Tribute Train, the carpeting is thicker and more plush than in any other room. Sharp-eyed visitors taking the elevator between floors will notice a spray-painted replica of anti-Capitol graffiti declaring, “The odds are never in our favor.”
The exhibition, which opened in April at the Frazier, features an interactive kiosk with a map of Panem, the country that North America devolves into after a series of wars and climatic disasters, including massive deterioration of the coastlines. This display goes into more detail than I recall from either the books or the movies about the country’s districts, its industries, geography and population. I could have spent all day there, although others might feel differently.
The write-ups that accompany the costumes, props and sets are captivating in their own right, revealing tidbits including that “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins took the name Panem from the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, who “satirized the Roman public, declaring that they cared for nothing but ‘panem et circences’ — bread and circuses.” Katniss and her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson), at one point ride in a Roman-style chariot.
“The Hunger Games” themselves are inspired in part by Rome’s gladiator games, and by — I learned — the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In that story, seven boys and seven girls from Athens are sent to Crete as tributes to King Minos, who forces the children into the Labyrinth, where they’d be devoured by the evil minotaur. (In “The Hunger Games,” the children essentially devour each other.) Reality TV and embedded war coverage also inspired Collins, whose father served in Vietnam.
Media manipulation is a major theme of the books and films, and in the District 13 gallery, one interactive display allows visitors to create their own propaganda video (or “proppo” in Panem-speak) by selecting footage from the films and then inserting a picture of themselves. This exercise, like much of the exhibition and the source material, is both exhilarating and unsettling.
Lionsgate and the exhibition’s designers, Imagine Exhibitions, deserve credit for letting the moral ambiguity and the dark heart of the story inform so much of “The Hunger Games: The Exhibition,” which has so far appeared in New York; San Francisco; and Sydney, Australia.
It’s worth noting that the “Hunger Games” movie franchise does have Kentucky connections. Lawrence, of course, is from Louisville, and a portion of the proceeds from the exhibition will benefit the Jennifer Lawrence Foundation. Hutcherson is a Boone County native. Katniss’s home area, known as The Seam, is Appalachian coal country.
In the hall outside the entrance to the exhibition, the Frazier offers a series of photographs called “Saving Kentucky: Greening The Bluegrass.” One photo’s description reads “The Hunger Games and the Real Appalachia,” and it highlights the work of the late environmental activist Daymon Morgan.
The overall experience of “The Hunger Games: The Exhibition” is amazing. Sure, there are one or two places where the overlapping audio loops are a little distracting, and be aware that some but not all interfaces are touch screens, which might leave you poking an unresponsive screen at some point. There are almost no specific references to the final movie, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” possibly because the exhibition debuted in 2015, before that film’s release. I didn’t notice any overt spoilers for the end of the series, either.
It’s worth the $27.50 adult admission price, the time, and the trip to see Panem in person, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the exhibition offers a vivid, compelling and disturbing depiction of a place that we, as a society, do not want to go.
If you go
‘The Hunger Games: The Exhibition’
When: Open through Sept. 10.
Where: Frazier History Museum, 829 W. Main St., Louisville
Cost: $27 adults (12 and older); $26 children (ages 4-11); $26 military; $26 seniors (65 and older); $16 Frazier members.