"It Belongs in a Museum": The Image of Museums in American Film, 1985-1995

By Louagie, Kimberly | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

"It Belongs in a Museum": The Image of Museums in American Film, 1985-1995


Louagie, Kimberly, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Introduction

My image of museums before working for them was based on a movie picture. I imagined hidden treasures in dust-covered crates, nerdy scientists working on obscure and dangerous serums, dashing curators wining and dining wealthy donors and visitors enamored with objects taking them back hundreds of thousands of years. It was a very romantic image, one which I still have. But these images of museums are not just quaint pictures. Several visitor study surveys say that many people have an image of museums that have been constructed by movies that they have seen (Ernst & Young 21; N.L. Hushion and Associates, Health Consultants and Angus Reid Group 18). The study of such images, then, is an opportunity to see what type of museum stereotypes the public is exposed to and, more importantly, provides an opportunity to examine what museums can learn from movies.

The study which follows focuses on the perception of museums in popular American film over the last decade. The resulting analysis is designed to provide more than a comparison between the image held of museums by Hollywood and the image held of museums by museum professionals. The act of verifying or contradicting the results of visitors' surveys or of taking a side in the debate between old and new museology is not the point of this paper. I am more interested in exploring the historically based, cultural stereotypes which are evident in the movie images themselves. In doing so, I hope to find out what role Hollywood has assigned museums to play in society and how museums can learn from these portrayals.

The museum as a place of exclusivity is by far the most popular movie stereotype. Museum buildings are castle-like structures with long staircases, rows of columns, palatial gallery spaces and marble floors. Its objects are famous works of art or objects of mythical ancestry displayed in darkened galleries protected by elaborate security systems. Its receptions are glamorous affairs with guests dressed in black tie and sequin gowns. And its visitors are young, white, well-educated professionals. This image of the museum, however, is not a desirable one according to museum professionals (and some movie characters). It flies in the face of what many museologists have been trying to do for the last twenty years-make the museum a more comfortable place for all members of society. However, one could also argue that such images of exclusivity appeal to the movie audience's need to fantasize.

Methods

How did I analyze these films? I broke them down into their component parts. Lighting, background sound and music, dialogue, editing and the physical appearance of the museum were each analyzed separately (Monaco 132). After watching each movie as a whole, taking notes on the plot and subplots of each, I went back to only those segments of the film which were set in a museum. I then viewed these segments five more times looking at the component parts listed above.

The use of dialogue in the movie, as one example of the use of film elements, was particularly pertinent to the portrayal of museums. Mixed with tone of voice and body language, dialogue tells us exactly what the characters think and feel. Vini's whiny rejection of Angie's (Geena Davis') invitation to go to an art gallery, in the movie Angie (1994), indicates his belief that the museum is boring and the Joker's (Jack Nicholson's) sarcastic remark about broadening one's mind at the Flugelheim Museum, in Batman (1989), suggests that he hates art and the civilization which it represents. What follows then is a discussion of how all these elements combine to portray the exclusive museum.

Results and Discussion The Museum as Architecture

"It's a beautiful building. Somewhere, Frank Lloyd Wright is eating his heart out."

Neal (Martin Landau) says this to Vincent (Richard Gere) in order to reassure him that the architectural plans for the new museum of anthropology are world class. …

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