Deconstructing “Night at the Museum”

A question that always intrigues me when Hollywood intersects with the world of museums is how truthfully our institutions are portrayed on film. What art or historical objects are featured and why? What liberties (and there are many) are taken? Even if it might be a little harder for me to suspend my disbelief, I enjoy the fictions created and always have fun deconstructing such movies from an insider’s perspective. I was happy to say yes when Unframed asked me to check out Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

One instance of directorial license I noticed is that many of the key scenes in the movie take place in the stately interiors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which is not part of the Smithsonian Institution. And many of the featured artworks, which come to life, facilitate time travel, and interact directly with the protagonists, don’t even belong to the National Gallery or the Smithsonian. Instead we see iconic American paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago—Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Grant Wood’s American Gothic.


The movie is populated with lots of other world-famous works set in the National Gallery space, like Rodin’s Thinker, which is transformed into a dolt of a he-man, and the classic black and white photograph—enlarged to take precedence over the painted masterpieces hanging adjacent—from Life magazine’s coverage of VJ day in August 1945: Alfred Eisenstadt’s unforgettable Times Square Kiss. And this is not to mention Jeff Koons’s gigantic Balloon Dog prancing around the halls of the museum!

Then there is the real Smithsonian, from the National Air and Space Museum, to the Castle on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the largely imaginary subterranean “federal archives,” which all figure prominently in the plot. Underground we see historical figures from outmoded dioramas come to life: General Custer, Sacagawea, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and the Egyptian pharaoh Kamunrah, who has enthroned himself in the Castle in Archie Bunker’s easy chair on top of a mountain of other objects looted from the Smithsonian’s vast collections (including Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, which he tosses aside because they aren’t made of real rubies).

Watching these icons of pop culture, history, and art history whiz by on the screen, I couldn’t help but think of how the very real mission of museums—to preserve such objects and histories for the public and posterity—shapes Hollywood’s reliance on instantly recognizable imagery to reach and entertain the broadest possible audiences.

Austen Bailly

3 Responses to Deconstructing “Night at the Museum”

  1. Before returning to art I spent a number of years working in behavioral research. One colleague was always perturbed by Hollywood’s depiction of of psychologists, and the character’s obliviousness to ethical boundaries–like sleeping with a patient. It seems that the only way Hollywood can depict objects and situations from the real world is if it’s stirred in with a heaping dose of the preposterous. Art School Confidential was another film that felt the need to punch up a story (about wacky art students) with a serial killer and undercover cop.

    Having only seen the trailer, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the familiar objects were in the public domain. It probably makes things easier for the legal department by not having to obtain permissions from living artists. I doubt Fox was happy asking Sony for permission to feature Archie’s chair or Dorothy’s shoes. Other than Jeff Koons, were there any other contemporary works in the movie?

    Koons seems like the kind of artist that would jump at the publicity. I can’t imagine Charles Ray’s mannequin family springing to life (or Fox wanting them). Likewise I have don’t imagine Robert Graham (or his estate) allowing one of his athletic nudes to jump to life.

  2. Art School Confidedntial is one of my favorite films, nails the contempt art mentality perfectly. As would be expected with Angelica Huston in the movie, whose husband Robert Graham must have influenced her portrayal, and desire to be in the movie. Malkovichs decadent stupdity perfectly symbolizes the current vacuousness of academic art. When you got Hollywood making fun of you, you know you are in trouble. The murder just an excuse to rag on the arrogance and selfabsorbtion, greater than Film’s even, of the “Fine” art academic/gallery/museum complex.

    My wife went to Parsons for one semester, which the film is truly about, and nailed it. She already had a life, having a finance degree and several jobs before going to Parsons. As a gorgeous balck woman with real drawing skills, now a graphic designer with a UCLA degree, they wanted her of course. a true adult in the middle of an overaged daycare center. But life called. which it doesnt to artistes, inward is not the way. Art is out there, far away from the parties and galleries, it is about mind, body and soul. Not the marketing and hype of the shallow art “scene”.

    Loved the Triangles! LOL!

    art collegia delenda est

  3. TallGrrl says:

    Does it really matter? Really?
    When children (and adults) see these movies…AND WANT TO GO TO THE MUSEUM…then it doesn’t matter where the art is depicted on the screen.
    It’s a MOVIE. And not only is it a movie…it’s a COMEDY movie.
    Please. Can we just lay aside the self-important nit-picking for a minute and be grateful that a hit movie (and its sequel) is spotlighting a museum during a time when the Arts are being cut from schools?

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