"To my feeling, popular art is an insight into a society and what they aspire to, what they really want, what they really are," Lucas said before grabbing a shovel and joining several local officials in turning over some dirt.
At times, the groundbreaking resembled a movie premiere minus the red carpet, with television cameras and photographers capturing the moment. Lucas called on Spielberg to join him on the mound of dirt, directing his friend to give a thumbs-up to the cameras.
"It's a great location," Spielberg told him as they headed to a private reception. Lucas pointed out the blocks-long museum site that until recently was a parking lot behind the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where the 1932 and 1984 Olympics took place.
It will be transformed into a multistory museum resembling Han Solo's Millennium Falcon spacecraft that appears to hover over an area surrounded by 11 acres of green space. The museum itself will contain more than 100,000 square feet of gallery space, underground parking, a restaurant, movie theaters and other amenities. Numerous programs are being planned for children from surrounding schools.
Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson, are picking up the cost, which museum officials expect will exceed $1 billion for construction and its operating endowment. That will make it the largest public gift ever given to a municipality, local officials say.
The museum will be in Exposition Park, across the street from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California Science Center and the California African American Museum and on the edge of the University of Southern California, where Lucas studied in the 1960s.
Although Lucas attended college nearby, the site was the third choice for the museum. Lucas and his wife couldn't reach an agreement with the director's hometown of San Francisco or his wife's hometown of Chicago.
The museum's wide-ranging collection will include paintings by Norman Rockwell, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, comic strips by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and underground artist Robert Crumb, animation from films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and special effects from films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Classic films represented will range from 1927's futuristic masterpiece Metropolis and Orson Welles' groundbreaking 1941 film Citizen Kane to the Lucas-Spielberg collaborations on the Indiana Jones movies.
And, of course, The Force will be strong at the museum. People will find everything from Luke Skywalker's first lightsaber to Darth Vader's helmet. Storyboards laying out the tale that Lucas created and that lives on in new film iterations also will be on display, along with stormtrooper uniforms and other set pieces.
Lucas, who has said mythologist Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces helped inspire his Star Wars stories, remarked Wednesday that he believes that without such tales, people don't come together to gain common cultural understanding.
"Whether it's a cave painting or whether it's Apollo as a statue or whether it's the Sistine Chapel, whether it's Napoleon on a horse, whatever it is, that's what we aspire to," he said.
And that's a message, he added, that he hopes museum visitors will come away with.