Local native Madlyn Burkert travels to a galaxy far, far away every day.
Madlyn Burkert describes herself as a “reasonable fan” of the Star Wars franchise — and it’s probably good to have a bit of emotional distance when you’re handling the very costumes, lightsabers, droids, ships and other ephemera that populate filmmaker George Lucas’ universe.
The Andover High School graduate (Class of ’01) and University of Michigan alum is the collections and exhibitions archivist for Lucasfilm Ltd. in San Francisco. While she didn’t curate the exhibit now at the DIA — “Star Wars and The Power of Costume” — Burkert (nee Moskowitz), 35, is a guardian of the stuff dreams are made of; so much so, in fact, that it took weeks for her to gain clearance from the company to talk to the press and to share photos.
“These are things that mean so much to so many people. To be entrusted to care for it — I take it seriously.”
— Madlyn Burkert
Her path to Skywalker Ranch began in Brooklyn, where Burkert taught high school history after graduating from U-M. In her third year of teaching, she started a graduate program at Long Island University in library science, which led to an internship and part-time job at the Jim Henson Company in Queens. The late Henson created the puppets that live on Sesame Street and a few others that did not (The Muppets).
“I always kind of loved working with historical collections, archives, but I didn’t fully realize what it would mean for me career-wise until I started,” Burkert says.While Burkert labored in a stuffed puppet archive, a second job at the Tamiment Library at NYU, where she earned a companion master’s degree in American studies, had her overseeing a trove of personal papers, manifestos, propaganda and effects documenting the American labor and radical political movements of the 20th century. She loved helping researchers with their projects by plucking the right source materials and developing a mastery of a collection.
A few years later, she applied for and got a Jedi Academy internship at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., working in the film archive. That led to a full-time job working with costumes, props and the like. Part of the job was working with a crew to prepare objects for exhibition, some of which the DIA is showing through Sept. 30.
In 2016, Burkert left Skywalker Ranch to work at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, her home for the past two years, to manage the Disney-era films and objects (Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012). She says she isn’t doing a typical archivist’s work, but is a guardian of physical assets, tracking objects used in movies made now — a “live collection” — and lending them for promotional events and exhibits. Among her favorite props? Porg, a birdlike creature that is operated like a mechanical puppet. It appeared in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Burkert enjoys a few other perks of being a Disney employee, including passes to Disney World and Disneyland, travel to galaxies far, far away (like Japan, Austria, New Orleans and more) to set up exhibits, and the power she holds in her white-gloved hands. Burkert is the “go-to” person for anything 3-D, she says.
Working with an entertainment-related archives is something Burkert knew she wanted to do within the first 15 minutes on the job at the Jim Henson Company.
“It’s really fun. These are things that mean so much to so many people. To be entrusted to care for it — I take it seriously,” Burkert says.
Burkert, who met her software engineer husband, Ben, in San Francisco, appreciates that her position as a guardian of the galaxy (apologies to George Lucas) is enviable. You can’t live on the planet, really, without awareness of a world that began in 1977 when Star Wars exploded onscreen.
In Burkert’s home, her younger brother, Jay, had a Star Wars obsession as a child. Growing up, the kids (including another brother, Noah) plucked their cookies from a jar shaped like R2-D2 (a droid) that their parents, Jan and Paul Moskowitz of Bloomfield Hills, bought in the U.P. on their honeymoon in 1977.
“It was quite amazing,” Burkert says, “to be able to say to my family that I take care of the real R2-D2.”
STAR WARS IN DETROIT
The Star Wars universe is brought to life through its characters in “Star Wars® and the Power of the Costume,” on display through Sept. 30 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. More than 60 original costumes — from Queen Amidala’s lavish gowns to Darth Vader’s black armor, plus Chewbacca, droids, X-wing pilots and more — featured in the first seven films of the Star Wars saga are on display. DIA.org.