A Night at the Museum

Home for the holidays, I end up watching movies with my mother. Two nights ago on TV was the sequel to the “Night at the Museum” (the one set at the Smithsonian). I hadn’t seen the first movie, but the basic plot of both was fairly simple: each night a magic tablet from ancient Egypt brings to life the exhibits at a natural history museum (in the first) and the Smithsonian (the second), with the exhibits restored at dawn. Ben Stiller plays a night guard who befriends the exhibits in the first movie, and in the second saves them from a power-mad pharaoh, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and some mobsters after the exhibits were transported to the Smithsonian for storage.[1] Along the way, Ben Stiller meets Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, who falls in love with him), Einstein bobble-heads and Abraham Lincoln. The movie had its cute bits (Amy Adams among them), but it mostly just annoyed me–had I not been home (or had I the remote) I would not have watched.

Here are a couple of the reasons:

  • “Natural History” – I have some misgivings about history based museums as a general rule, though I do like looking at the art. This movie is set with exhibits of a natural history museum–which mixes animals, dinosaurs, Sacajawea, neanderthals, Mongolians, Romans, cowboys, and Teddy Roosevelt. As is hinted to in the plot of this movie, the key to the exhibits has little to do with “natural history” and everything to do with drawing visitors. Nevertheless, the general idea that natural history is stuff that happened outside and in the past without a link to science persists. This description has bothered me more as I age because it draws a distinction between civilization and nature and places the pre-modern beyond civilization.[2]In some ways, this is a semantic complaint since they could just call it a catchall museum (or antiquary?) and be done with it. Yet, sometimes the semantic concerns are the most insidious because it is possible to be entirely oblivious to what is happening.
  • The entire movie was reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. General George Custer being obsessed with his hair and being a terrible tactician, Napoleon’s obsession with his height (likely a product of British propaganda, as much as anything), and the romantic version of the photo “the kiss,” which, by all accounts was not nearly so welcome. The plot of the movie is designed as a vehicle for cameo appearances. The story can be done well (e.g. “Midnight in Paris”), but it can also result in excessively cheesy reductionism, which was the case in this film.

[1] The museum replaced the exhibits with animated and interactive displays.
[2] Throwing Teddy Roosevelt into that category also provides a level of unintentional comedy.

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