Updated: Jan 28
Sitting in your chairs and sofas, close your eyes and for a moment and imagine you’re soaring high above in the skies. Imagine being a pioneering aviator who has numerous records to her name. Imagine being the first female passenger to fly across the Atlantic, and then the first female to pilot an aircraft solo across the Atlantic. Imagine being the first female recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Imagine being a best-selling author and also a Red Cross volunteer during WWI. Essentially, imagine being Amelia Earhart.
At the same time, however, imagine a slight detour to your flight plan: imagine finding yourself landing on a cleared out Central Park West street to meet a guard, Larry Daley, to decide the fate of several hundred museum artifacts. Okay, we’re probably stretching this analogy a little too much, but that doesn’t make it any less true - in fact, vigilant New Yorkers in 2008 would have had the perfect opportunity of spotting Earhart’s plane parked on the street.
The astonishing sight was part of the 2009 film Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. But it’s not just the flight this phoenix took, but to where it went, that matters. The Night at the Museum trilogy, as you would’ve guessed it, is based around museums - The Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Institute, and The British Museum - and their artifacts (Earhart’s statue is part of a display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum), and that’s what we’re talking about.
Night at the Museum’s location is today becoming a part of a major trend where museums and galleries are the backdrops to movie scenes, if not a large part of the movie itself. This isn’t surprising - museums have become some of the most instantly recognizable and visually important institutions. Be it the glass pyramid at the Louvre or Frank Lloyd’s architecture of the Guggenheim (in NY or Bilbao), museums and their universal value is lending a big hand towards the dreams of Hollywood and its scripts. Let’s flip through those pages together and come across a few of our favorite museums that have had their tryst with the silver screen.
Running around in the Louvre
Trust Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave magic to charm us through the streets of Paris - and also, the galleries of the Louvre. But you’re in for a surprise if you wished to give ample time to look at each painting. Godard’s movie Bande à part, at its most basic, is the story of three friends who commit a robbery. What’s common with all crooks that try their hands at stealing money? Running.
Godard’s band of thieves run. Through the Louvre. In a world-record time.
Setting a new world record of nine minutes and forty-three seconds (beating the earlier time by two seconds), the scene takes up twenty-four seconds of panoramas, sounds, bystanders, and quick glances at famous masterpieces while showing the three Parisians dashing through the halls. And the guards that you see chasing them weren’t in on it; Godard didn’t ask for permission before letting the three run.
A more famous example, however, rests with our favorite symbologist, Robert Langdon’s journey in The Da Vinci Code. Interestingly, the Louvre didn’t officially participate in the book’s adaptation - but in its final moments, as Langdon kneels down pondering on the discovery he just made, the iconic glass pyramid doesn’t go amiss.
Romancing with The Met
It seems there’s no dearth of thieves, even across the pond. This time we have a much more suave and sophisticated gentleman that specifies in a very specific commodity to steal: paintings. Naturally, his hunting ground rests to be museums and art galleries. Pierce Brosnan’s character from the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair chooses The Met as his prey. Interestingly, the museum declined permission to film the scene inside, and a replica of the museum had to be made.
All is not lost to the hands of such crooks, however. These galleries still hold the romantic feeling couples everywhere like to experience and the movie When Harry Met Sally is second to none in that, with its heartwarming scene in The Met’s Temple of Dendur. The two adopt Eastern accents while reciting the tongue twister “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash, but I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie” for fun before Sally breaks off by telling Harry about her date. A perfect mix of fun, love, and heartbreak.
The Met has found itself to be a part of several films - Ocean’s 8 showed us an entourage breaking into the Met gala for another heist; Even Woody Allen’s Manhattan takes us through several museums - the Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History, the Whitney, and of course, The Met. While we’ll leave the weight of the romantic element of the story to your discretion (one of Allen’s romantic arcs are with a seventeen-year-old girl in the film), the large screen-time the museums have in the film certainly doesn’t go unnoticed.
Long walks in the Hermitage
Move over 1917, let’s bring up the OG film executed in one continuous shot: traveling through thirty-three rooms over an uninterrupted ninety-minute runtime, Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 masterpiece Russian Ark is the art-historical lover’s delight. The audacious project takes us over an almost three hundred year-long journey of Russian history, where a mysterious tour guide shows us the lives of Tsars, cultures, art, and much more. Join the likes of Catherine the Great and Nicholas II as we go over the exhibits of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg - the second largest museum in the world (after the Louvre).
‘Wakanda Forever’ at the High Museum of Art
Filmed at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Museum of Great Britain is known to house some of the rarest and finest works of African art. In 2018 it was also the sight of Killmonger’s entourage from the movie Black Panther breaking in and taking away several of the artifacts on display. But this wasn’t the case of a simple B&E.
While surveying the artifacts, a white curator comes up to him, striking a conversation about the provenance of an axe. Killmonger tells her “it was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. Don’t trip – I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.” When the woman replies that the items are not for sale, Killmonger says, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
The subsequent attack and ‘reclamation’ of the artifact, despite fictional, has had very much real ripples felt in the art world - ripples about restituting art and artifacts that have had a troubled provenance, of cultural appropriation, and of the responsibilities of European institutions that have had colonial legacies. We’re looking at you, Koh-i-Noor.
Special mention: dancing in the Louvre
Western interaction with art has largely been white culture injecting and intervening in non-white cultures. And then there’s Jay Z and Beyonce, a Black couple dancing in the Louvre. As the art historian Alexandra Thomas remarks, it’s an “embodied intervention of Western art.” For us, it’s Apesh*t.
Fair, the reference isn’t a movie, but a music video, yet keeping aside the fact that the whole of the Louvre was at their disposal to film the whole song, the continuous presence of the works of art symbolises something far more important - that antiquities of the past can be looked under a contemporary lens, that objects of the past and ideas of the present can live in co-existence.
Of course, then there’s the video itself. Dressed in pastel colored power suits, you find the duo in the presence of some of the greatest works of art - Mona Lisa, Jacques-Louis David’s works, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Great Sphinx of Tanis, Venus de Milo, and many more.
The Carters positioning themselves in a museum space that’s largely a white locale is another rung in the ladder that we saw Killmonger climbing: of conversations around culture and representation changing. Depictions of museums and galleries today isn’t an occurrence we can view without context.
If you liked finding your favourite museums on the big screen, make sure to check out our favourite artworks featured in famous TV shows here!