DC museums look to movies to expand their audience

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Film props and iconic pop-culture artifacts have drawn audiences to exhibits for years, but some area museums are going a step further, linking collections with new movie releases to tell real-life stories or capitalize on audience interest.

The Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, the Newseum and the International Spy Museum have each teamed with Hollywood producers to showcase artifacts or themes from recently released movies — a trend academics say could be a win-win for everyone.

"I think it's a really good plan for museums in terms of reaching out and relating to the public," said John Douglass, associate professor of communication at American University. "It lets people look below the surface and see that some of this is real and relates to real stories."

For some films, the connections are obvious. The National Gallery of Art for decades held in its archives historical artifacts related to World War II soldiers who were committed to rescuing European art from Nazi looters. So, when 20th Century Fox brought the subject to the big screen in February with the George Clooney film "Monuments Men," museum officials saw an opportunity. The gallery opened an exhibit on Feb. 11 that displayed photos and documents related to the people and events that inspired the film.

"Our vision is for people to go to the movie, have their eyes opened to something new, then, hopefully, a few will come here," Chief of Gallery Archives Maygene Daniels said.

Daniels said that the real Monuments Men story received less attention over time, but the artifacts have been in the museum archives available to researchers since 1942. She said the exhibit helps to correct a few liberties the film's writers took with history — there were over 130 monuments men, whereas in the film there were only eight. There were also a few monuments women involved.

"We see it as a teaching opportunity to show people it's real, and it's history," she said.

Other exhibits rely on a film's popularity to attract new visitors.

Such displays aren't exactly new. Dorothy's ruby red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" are a must-see on hot summer days for many tourists visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. And the 50-year-old original studio model of the starship Enterprise from the 1960s TV series "Star Trek" hangs in the basement at the Air and Space Museum.

But usually such items are displayed because they have achieved an iconic status in popular culture.

The Newseum exhibit team worked closely with Paramount Pictures well before the December release of Anchorman 2 to create "Anchorman: The Exhibit," which opened a month before the film.

"We started working on it in early 2013. So it was almost a year before it opened on Nov. 14, 2013," Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson said.

The Anchorman exhibit was the first temporary exhibit the Newseum put together featuring a popular film. The exhibit is based on a comedy film, so it is naturally a lighter and entertaining experience for museumgoers.

"There are lots of serious exhibits in the Newseum, like the Pulitzer Prize photo wall and the 9/11 exhibit. When we open something like Anchorman, it allows our visitors see the lighter side of news," Thompson said. "It's a balance."

Thompson said the Anchorman exhibit also features serious elements, highlighting discrimination in the newsroom, especially toward women.

The Newseum is one of the few museums in the District that charges admission. Despite its $22.95 adult ticket price, it faced growing debt and layoffs. Last year, visitor count grew by 5 percent.

"I think Anchorman did contribute to the 5 percent increase in visitors. That was a nice bump to see," Thompson said.

While there is no way to track how many people came specifically to see the Anchorman exhibit, Thompson said people mention it on websites like Yelp and Trip Advisor.

Sometimes, film producers themselves approach museums, as was the case at the International Spy Museum. EON Productions, best known for producing the James Bond film franchise, contacted the spy museum to create an exhibit that would "embody and celebrate" the fictional British spy. The museum embraced the cross-promotional offer, creating the exhibit "Exquisitely Evil," which looks at the super spy's villains.

When it opened in November 2012 to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the franchise, an influx of visitors came through the museum's doors. It was their first time creating an exhibit based on a popular film.

"We certainly saw a spike," museum spokesman Jason Werden said, referring to the number of visitors. The museum has also created an exhibit around the 2012 Academy Award-winning film "Argo" about a covert operation to rescue six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis.

The Bond exhibit shows how many props in the films were based on real spy tools, but slightly exaggerated for the sake of movie magic, like the "dagger shoe," in the Bond film "From Russia with Love." The secret weapon has a three-inch spike that pops out the tip of the sole.

The spy museum shows the movie prop next to its historical counterpart, which had several, smaller spikes on the side of the shoe.

"It's great to keep up with that pop culture and reflect it," Werden said.

Douglass said that's a strength of the museum.

"If this gets people interested in studying history, then I think it's a good idea," he said. "If handled properly, it is a very positive thing."

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Information from: The Washington Times, http://www.washtimes.com

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