Lights! Camera! Action! Museums in the Movies

Since Night at the Museum premiered in 2006, one of the most common responses I get when I tell people I work in museums is some variation on “Do your exhibits come alive at night?” At the time, I worked in a museum that had a half-dismantled Chuck E. Cheese animatronic robot in the collection, so my answer was usually “I sure hope not!”

Movies and television are sometimes the primary way most people learn about museums, particularly those who may not live near large urban centers. But museums in reality are very different places than they might lead you to believe. Museums and their staff are frequently portrayed as stuffy, boring, or uptight (see the Ricky Gervais’ curator in Night at the Museum, or the stodgy librarian squealing “shh!” in every movie to ever have a scene in a library).  During a field trip to an exhibit about an Incan mummy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Xander complains, “Typical museum trick. Promise human sacrifice, deliver old pots and pans.” At the other end of the spectrum, museums are often portrayed as jumping off points for wild adventures (see National Treasure, The Librarian). On Covert Affairs, spy Annie Walker’s cover identity is as an “acquisitions” curator at the Smithsonian, although perhaps her most challenging mission is having to lead a tour for her niece’s school group.

Trailer for The Librarian

Archeologists get a particularly bad rap in movies. If the world is about to end, you can bet an archeologist is to blame. In The Mummy, overly-eager archeologists unleash the wrath of the eponymous mummy, and several people pay with their lives. Even the horror genre gets in on it: in Jason X (which I do not recommend you watch, unless you are really bored in a hotel room with only one channel), a team of archeology students returns to the abandoned earth and manage to excavate the frozen body of Jason, who naturally thaws out and terrorizes the entire crew. Forget the cat, curiosity nearly always kills the archeologist!

Trailer for Jason X

Archivists don’t fare a lot better, although they tend to just be in the way of people trying to save the world, not actively destroying it themselves. In National Treasure, Nicholas Cage knows better than to trust the security at the National Archives with the safety of the Declaration of Independence when it is threatened. In The Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks is watched like a hawk, but still manages to steal precious documents from that restrictive archivist. Why can’t those archivists understand how much more important his research is than anyone else’s?

Trailer for National Treasure

Museums frequently show up in movies as backdrops for contemplation and exploration of emotions (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…no, really,) for awkward dates (see When Harry Met Sally, or any Woody Allen movie), or for a good ol’ fashioned heist (The Thomas Crown Affair, the Ocean’s # series). Optimistically, I like to think this reflects the importance of museums in peoples’ daily lives; that when they seek out spaces in which to have meaningful experiences, museums are included, maybe even featured, on the list. Realistically, I know that museums are just pretty buildings with lots of good light for filming, but delusion is what movies are all about, right?

Museum as backdrop for scene from When Harry Met Sally

Beating a laser field for a museum heist in Ocean’s 12

Sometimes, museums and archives solve major problems in movies and TV shows. In V for Vendetta, a massive government conspiracy is uncovered using government archives. As the Detective Finch notes, “One thing is true of all governments – their most reliable records are their tax records.” Even evil dictatorships need to follow their records schedules!  At the beginning of Battlestar Galactica, the entire spaceship has been decommissioned and preserved as a museum. Fortunately, the collections and facilities managers really did their jobs well, as the ship is launched back into service and vital in the continued survival of humanity.

There are, however, hidden truths in many movies and TV shows, leading me to suspect some producer, somewhere, has a distant cousin who once actually worked in a museum. In particular, I enjoy the staff of Warehouse 13 whining about the drudgery of the on-going inventory project in their massive collection of magical artifacts. I want to leap out of my seat and cheer every time Indiana Jones yells at a looter: “That belongs in a museum!” (Don’t let any archeologist fool you…this may be the only reasonable thing Indy ever says or does, but we all secretly love him.) In an episode of Dr. Who, I was thrilled to see Billy Nighy play a curator who, while seeming stuffy at first, was also deeply passionate and eloquent about the works of Vincent Van Gogh. The scene at the end of A League of Their Own where the girls’ baseball league reunites at Cooperstown is how every museum professional hopes their exhibits will be received.

Audio of Bill Nighy’s curatorial joy over Vincent Van Gogh from Doctor Who

Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit causes
spontaneous sing-a-long in
A League of Their Own

While Hollywood may never be interested in what really happens at museums, it can still be fun to see what stories we inspire them to tell. What are some of your favorite movies or shows about museums or archives?


About Jenn M.

Jenn is the Archeology Lab Manager at NMSC. She holds a BA in Archeology and American Studies from Boston University and a MA in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University. She has worked in a diverse bunch of collections, ranging from Native American basketry to agricultural history to modern physics archives (and an awful lot in between), but her favorite has always been 19th century material culture.
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