In the B.C. times (before Covid) (ha ha ha I am actually a dad) May would signal a packed slate of must-see movies coming to theaters, and museums would be gearing up to open their money-making summer exhibitions. Back in those days, we would willingly plunge into a crowd to experience these must-see events. As a secret extrovert and overt museum and movie lover, I’m longing to be irritated by swarms of people and exhilarated by communal experience. To cope, as we enter our second Covid summer, I thought we could talk about when museums and movies (or TV shows that feel like cinematic experiences) collide. Oh but before I continue: please know that I’ve never seen Night at The Museum, and I never will. There are plenty of lists out there about iconic movie scenes set in museums. In true Museum Drip fashion I’m more interesting in picking about how museums serve to advance the plot and tone of the movie or TV show and what that reflects about our society at large.
Being inside has changed me. I used to exclusively watch TV shows 5-8 years after they finished airing and now, I have all the streaming services and I see all the shows. So imagine my surprise when I used to be a person that mocked the Marvel Comics Universe, and then became inspired by the portrayal of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the mini series Falcon and the Winter Soldier. (There might be spoilers in this post? I’ve only seen like 40% of MCU movies and shows and hello they all come from comics that exist so I don’t know what constitutes as spoilers.) It got me thinking about different categories of ways museums are used as plot devices.
Falcon and the Winter Soldier took an appropriate 2021 pivot to use the idea of “Captain America” as a lens to question and critique who represents America. Along this journey we find out that there was a Black super soldier (a person injected with a serum to make them super strong & fast & stuff), Isaiah Bradley. Bradley was introduced in a 2003 miniseries by Robert Morales called Red, White and Black and his story was inspired by that of the infamous Tuskegee Study. Bradley’s character is crucial to the race-clarity in this series: he “…complicates the legacy of Captain America, because there’s a new layer to it; a Black super-soldier who was secretly created, and who was treated horrifically rather than celebrated as was his due, even though he risked his life for his country.”
In the final episode of the series, Sam Wilson (Falcon) brings Isaiah Bradley to the Air and Space Museum to show that they’ve added bronze statue of Bradley to the Captain America exhibit at the Air and Space Museum. Enshrining Bradley in a museum exhibit alongside Steve Rogers is the perfect way to insinuate that history will no longer forget him; rather, he’ll be as remembered and as celebrated as Captain America himself. The museum stands in for memorialization and dignifying. A museum is a place to make history visible and because this history is now visible, it serves as proof that Isaiah Bradley and his story matter.
This made me think about other examples of movies and TV using a museum to prove that a history mattered, and the main example this called to mind in the category of “museums as self-actualization” was an unlikely pairing. A League of Their Own! ALSO relevant to WWII though, just like Captain America. The All American Professional Girls Baseball League lasted from 1943-1954, and was the forerunner for women’s professional sports. The movie shows the athletes fighting for legitimacy and the main protagonists, Dottie and her sister Kit, endeavoring to be taken seriously as ball players in the face of rampant, sanctioned, culturally accepted sexism.
The movie ends with the women visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame to see themselves in the “Women in Baseball” exhibit, which opened in 1988. A League of Their Own premiered in 1992. Just as in Captain America/Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the museum stands in as a signifier of “IMPORTANCE” and helps the women to frame their contributions to American culture. IRL, there’s an annual meet up of the AAPGBL at the Baseball Hall of Fame every year. Much like Isaiah Bradley’s fictional, long-overdue representation, it’s surprising that the real Women in Baseball exhibit took 34 years to create.
I had to look it up to make sure I wasn’t just being ill-informed, but the Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1939. Reminds of the Venn Diagram of Museum Worthiness…someone undertook the research to create a museum exhibition, which brought that story to a broader audience, which led to a blockbuster portrayal of that story in media. Interesting that representation in museums can lead to representation in other sectors and our general collective conscious.
This brings me to one of the most fascinating representations of a museum signifying legitimacy and importance I’ve ever seen in media: HBO’s 2019 Watchmen series. This version of Watchmen takes place in 2019, but in an alternate reality in Tulsa, OK, where descendants of victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre receive reparations. (Here is an amazing illustrated telling of the Tulsa Massacre if you need a refresher.) The entire series is equal parts batshit crazy and incredibly astute.
In addition to eccentric evil billionaires, squids raining from the sky, police and vigilantes all wearing masks, and all the other joys of the Dr. Manhattan plot points, the show addresses generational trauma in the context of white supremacy. There are quite a few scenes in Watchmen, including the series’ opening, that are incredibly difficult to watch, but at the same time, makes you recognize how much we’ve been missing acknowledged in media. Part of the way the show deals with generational trauma is through a museum based on the Greenwood Cultural Center.
The Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage is central to the plot because individuals can trace their ancestry through DNA testing on site. It’s an interesting way to think about the function of a memorial museum, but at the same time, subscribes to memorial museums 101. The history of the Tulsa massacre, like the Holocaust, like the 9-11 terrorist attacks, are terrible to relive. While many may visit these museums out of a sense of duty to learn our history, we also want them to have some function and action for visitors and members of the memorialized community. The Center for Cultural Heritage in Watchmen isn’t a passive memorial. Importantly, unlike in real life, the information and community function of the center is backed up with policy action through reparations. The center, in the show, demonstrates how making history visible could work hand in hand with policy to not only ensure that we remember, but that steps are taken to repair the damage that we’ve worked so hard to make visible so that we don’t forget it.
Watchmen differs from the Captain America/Falcon and League of Their Own examples in that the museum takes that next step toward community action, but like the other two, it uses the museum as a signifier of the importance of a plot element. One of the things I say about Museum Drip is that for better or worse, museums hold our culture. This is underscored by the use of museums in movies and TV to code something as of the utmost importance. Why don’t we take this seriously?
ON THE OTHER HAND, sometimes deploying a museum as a movie or TV trope is not so serious at all. Tune in next time as I turn this blog into nothing but a pop culture round up. Jk. But I do have a few more very fun (for ME) posts on this topic, hopefully culminating in a crossover event with my brother as I try my hardest to prod him into creating a movie blog despite the fact that he is way too busy being a full-time caregiver to my angel baby nephew. Can you guess some of the movies that we’ll feature in the series? What’s the most important museum in a movie or TV show (besides the I C O N I C Met steps)?