There it is, right in the title. The third edition of the Blockbusters series is likely the most well-known of the museums in the movies category – the Indiana Jones shit! This is what you’ve been waiting for, I know. Reminder: I have never seen Night at the Museum, and I never will.
The Indiana Jones category is for the museums that are evidence of adventure and thrills. This is the closest to the origins of museums of any of the museums in the movies categories. Museums originated as places to represent the political and pedagogical agenda of their nation. Predating museums were public squares in which conquerors in empires dragged back literal pieces of fallen civilizations. The trope of museums as a repository for priceless and potentially dangerous artifacts is rooted in the real history of capturing unfamiliar objects from exotic cultures. There’s a particular feeling that’s a mixture of fear and fascination that comes from separating an object from its intention. Humans are naturally curious; the idea that an object could be imbued with an unknown power is seductive. This is the fate that awaits all of the heroes of the films we have as examples today. Get your whips ready, y’all.
Indiana Jones (and Star Wars, which is secretly the other focus of this blog) was inspired by classic action-adventure movie serials that creators like George Lucas loved to watch in their youth. Obviously I wasn’t around in the 40’s when they were on, but I believe I’m correct to say, picture A Christmas Story’s Ralphie’s imaginary showdown with “Black Bart” to get a feel for what these serials were like. George Lucas sought to create a character who would mimic those unflappable heroes, who represent “all of our greatest, most productive myths about ourselves. Being strong, resourceful and quick. It’s your best dream of heroism – a time of no fears and absolute resourcefulness. And a certain kind of competence in the face of almost any adversity.’‘ Indiana Jones in turn went on to spawn a genre of treasure-hunting action adventure movies, from the incomparable The Mummy franchise to the lukewarm National Treasure (I said what I said).
SO, sometimes treasure hunting adventure movies translate to museums in the movies, sometimes they don’t. Indiana Jones is not just a hot body with a whip, but an archaeologist, so he knows his stuff and you know he knows his way around a museum collection, if you know what I mean. There are finer points to all the films in the Jones franchise, I mean how closely they align with museums but also ripping out hearts and snake caves and melting faces, but generally the overview is that Mr. Jones is a
hot educated archaeologist who is contracted by the government because he knows about excavating sites. Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, are the most museum-y of the original trilogy. You love to see the twist that his dad was a Medievalist in the Last Crusade, super on brand. Anyway – I am not an archaeologist nor do I have much experience in ethnographic collections, but I know that Indiana Jones both inspires and infuriates those in the field. It provides a fairy tale life for folks interested in history and uncovering human stories, but doesn’t problematize the practice of busting off on missions in foreign countries to look for objects. Nonetheless, it introduced generations of fans to archaeology and bridged the gap between media, popular culture and science.
The objects that are the source of Indiana Jones’s missions, the Ark of the Covenant, Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail, the crystal skull, aren’t necessarily demonstrative of tensions between putting things in a museum and leaving them for their culture of origin – but if we believe that artifacts from other cultures are so exotic that they can’t be understood, these movies do provide an argument FOR taking objects and locking them away in museums in a way that is…not great. There are tons of other treasure-hunting films that are Indiana Jones-inspired. But how about other movies that are focused on ~dangerous artifacts~?
Wonder Woman 1984
I know a lot of people didn’t like this movie, but it gave me Kristen Wiig and shoulder pads, and so I personally did not find anything to complain about. It helped inspire some of my museum nerd archetypes. I read one review that called the film “disenchanted” which is like, I mean yeah, if you’ve worked for a museum for any significant number of years, then you know that they really caught the vibe. But yeah – I came to this movie for Kristen Wiig, and yeah, I also stayed for Kristen Wiig, but the real charm for me is how expertly this “dangerous artifact” trope underscores some of the seedy shit about working in museums.
Diana (Wonder Woman) and Barbara (Kristen Wiig) are coworkers at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The FBI (the government stays up in museum business, that’s a theme for these movies) asks the museum to identify stolen antiquities from a recent robbery that Diana in fact had foiled. (That happened in a mall…) One such object that doesn’t look like it’d be worth much is the “Dreamstone,” which grants a person one wish, but takes a toll in return. This fits the trope deliciously – the idea that a museum could be given stolen antiquities and the possibility that one of them could have supernatural, world-changing powers. In reality, the random things that are dumped on museums are things like erotic salt and pepper shakers. (That’s a true story.)
The part that I love the most about this movie is how right it gets the creeps that treat museums as their personal playgrounds. The villain Maxwell Lorenzano (Max Lord) is a bigshot “oil guy” (secretly a failing business owner). He’s introduced as a rich guy who is “considering becoming a “Friend of the Smithsonian at the Partner level” and I am bowing down to whoever was responsible for getting that lingo so spot on. Apparently the “Partner” level entitles him to “private tours” which in this case, literally means poking around labs and offices and honestly, I could see this happening in a real museum if the “business owner” has enough money. After a private tour with Barbara (of the “ENTIRE SMITHSONIAN” ???) he decides to give his entire donation to the department that’s currently housing the Dreamstone. He uses his money and status as a to gain access to artifacts and information that should not be accessible to him. (Of course, he was behind the heist and is looking for the Dreamstone.) It’s a cautionary tale! The overarching lesson of the film is to be above greed, but the REAL lesson for museums is not to take creeps’ money and become beholden to them. Basically this aspect of this movie is why I wrote a whole post about reforming fundraising. Diana claps back at him with the whole “I find that our benefactors who believe in true philanthropy prefer to stay out of the spotlight.” Not that skeezy donors can’t also be anonymous, but still. Tell em why you mad.
The other thing I love about this movie is our fascination with the Smithsonian. Anything can happen at ~THE SMITHSONIAN~! People will tell me to my face that they don’t think my job is a real job, but if you just replace the word “museum” with the word Smithsonian, they’ll hang on every word you say. Yet there’s such a lack of understanding about what it actually is that there’s that line over the tour of the “entire Smithsonian” which I truly can’t get over, clearly. And can we talk about the gala scene? No. We can’t. We have to move on.
If you told me I could only take one movie to a desert island, it would be Hocus Pocus. So imagine my delight when discussing the idea for this blog with my brother and he suggested this transcendent, unmatched triumph of modern cinema because it does, indeed, all start with a museum!
One fun thing about this movie is how the museum was closed BECAUSE A LOT OF SPOOKY THINGS HAPPENED THERE. Either the museum was closed because of budget cuts in Salem, or everyone in town is super down with their belief in the supernatural, because if enough spooky things are happening at your workplace that you need to close it, that doesn’t feel safe. One thing this movie gets right is that Allison’s mom “used to run the museum,” before it was shut down for being so haunted it was putting people in peril, and Allison’s family is the richest in town. Lol museum world shit. Allison’s mom was definitely an unpaid volunteer who called herself an “executive director.”
Hocus Pocus, because it’s set in New England, aka the cradle of civilization (lol) gets to skip over the “treasure hunting” portion of the genre, since the museum itself essentially is the dangerous artifact, as the witches’ house. Like WW84, the discovery of the dangerous artifact in the museum kicks things off right away.
Things I love about the role of the museum in this movie: everything. So the museum was shut down because it was “too spooky” to be safe, but rather than move any of the objects to a more secure location, they just leave them there. With no conservation??? And people breaking in all the time??? Another thing that I love is that it still has that gift shop look that looked exactly like Connecticut’s Old New-Gate Prison after it was closed for over a decade starting in the early 2000’s (although, to my knowledge, not for spooky things). They capture the poorly-funded New England museum in the 1990s so well, it really makes us feel seen. It does seem like the museum was quite educational before being shut down for spooky things. We see interpretive panels, and clearly every kid in town has been through on a field trip. It does beg the question for me of, when did they establish this space as a museum? And what happened to the museum after the witches turned to stone? Did they update the interpretive panels? Did someone document the way they looked in stone and hang the photos in the museum? Did Max go on to major in Public History? If the museum had had the funds to stay open, would Max have ever lit the Black Flame Candle? See? This is why museums are vital to our societies.
Many other people have written well about the significance of the museum scene in Black Panther, so I’m not going to rehash the analysis. But I’d be remiss not to mention it as a foil to the long-established treasure-hunting movie genre. The stark white British Museum gallery with impeccably invisible mounts for African artifacts demonstrates what happens to the outcomes of those treasure-hunting excursions. In real life, the exotic objects of expeditions aren’t actually imbued with curses or dark powers or spells, but they are meaningful to the cultures from which they originated, and stripped of their meaning in a cold gallery. The treatment of Killmonger by the condescending and coffee-drinking curator, and the presence of the heightened security that he observes has been “watching him since he set foot in the place,” are spot-on representations of the ways museums have truly, not only in the movies but in human history, scooped up objects and then denied access their own people access to them.
You know I never stop saying it: representation matters. The dangerous artifacts/treasure hunting movie genre is beloved, and it should be! But when a movie, especially a Marvel movie that reaches a huge audience, accurately calls attention to what has been debated internally in the museum field for decades (centuries), we gain a more accurate understanding of human history and conflict. To try to explain how Indiana Jones perpetuates the glamorization of archaeology as cultural looting, I could spend 6 hours every week writing 2,500 words on colonization and the politics of museum ownership and display – or I could just show someone that scene. And that’s what I love about the Blockbuster series! One of the things museums are currently most concerned with is inclusion – one of the ways we can be more inclusive is by welcoming these places where museums & pop culture overlap and support each other.
Thanks for following along on this series! Are you ready to move on? Or would you like one super-focused post on one of the greatest movie franchises of this genre? Which will you get? Who is the real audience for this blog? Your questions answered….next time. Maybe.