My recent visit to the National Geographic Museum’s exhibit, Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology, revealed what the modern museum must do to keep the turnstiles turning. And the exhibits, I learned, they are a’changin’.
As a private museum, Washington, D.C.’s National Geographic Museum has to give the people what they want. Under commercial pressure, the amount of information provided by museums is changing, and so is the traditional format. In place of the expected plaques, The Adventure of Archaeology exhibit provides an iPad and a set of headphones. All of the items on display are labeled with three digit codes, which, when punched into the iPad, conjure up a narrator and extra videos to explain what has caught your interest.
Visitors must be lured to the museum (particularly in a town with a surfeit of free museums), hence the Indiana Jones theme, which National Geographic hopes will be enough to, “get you interested [in archaeology] through the Hollywood door.” Once inside, one notices that the exhibit splits even time between actual artifacts and movie “artifacts.”
“100 real artifacts and 100 movie props,” says Fred Heibert, National Geographic archaeology fellow, who is charged with selecting the exhibit pieces. Heibert confesses he had equal difficulty choosing from Lucas’s collection as he did from the University of Pennsylvania Museum collection. “You would open one crate and oh my god, it's Harrison Ford’s hats, 50 of them,” he says.
Relics such as these give equal space to a small but fascinating collection of items. These artifacts include the oldest map in the world, made more than 2,500 years ago in the city of Nippur in what is now southeast Iraq, as well as Mesopotamian and pre-Columbian gold. And there is also 7,000 year old pottery from the ancient Middle East. As the educator’s guide to the museum advises, “Make sure students don’t just rush through the exhibit looking for the interactive stations and miss the opportunity to view real cultural artifacts.” This is sure to be a difficult task as the Indiana Jones movies (yes, including the Crystal Skull) not only get visitors through the door, but are actually postured as if they are the main exhibit. The guide further explains that the real artifacts are off in the “four Discovery Zones located in rooms to the side of the main exhibit path.” At least the museum doesn’t attempt psychoanalysis, unlike a similar exhibit by the same creators, Star Wars Identities, which helps you discover your identity through the Jedi heroes.
Kathryn Keane, Vice President of Exhibits at National Geographic, explained that, “attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.” This has supposedly necessitated a new museum format, built on iPads, videos, buttons to push, and games to play. “Visitors are getting curated content served up to them by every platform on earth,” she says. Aptly, Keane describes herself as working in the “educational media business.”
X3 Productions, an exhibit design company, partnered with National Geographic and Lucasfilm to develop The Adventure of Archaeology. X3 is on the cutting edge of museum design. Their creations indicate the way the museum world has turned toward interactive entertainment for the sake of pop-culture-infused “education.” Here is how X3 describes the Indiana Jones exhibit: “featuring state-of-the-art technology, this first-of-its-kind touring museum exhibition transforms the museum experience into an interactive, multimedia adventure.”
The National Geographic Museum and Kathryn Keane deserve some sympathy. The original concept for the exhibit was to showcase the archaeological work that National Geographic has covered for over a century. Even the ominously named X3 Productions is not to blame. Both are simply responding to what we, the visitors, expect of our museums.
My visit taught me far more about the modern museum-goer than about archaeology. The exhibit was created for an audience with very little free time, a short attention span, and a need to be entertained. But in my experience, museums are populated by families. (National Geographic confirmed this was their target demographic.) So, I find it hard to believe that this is what most visitors are looking for when they visit a museum. Do we visit a museum to stand by ourselves, plug in, and stare? Or, do we visit a museum to experience history together? National Geographic has the wrong answer.
Grant Wishard is an intern at The Weekly Standard.