May 1, 2020
By Shoshana Resnikoff, curator
To the great despair of friends and family, I have dreadful taste in movies. I'll watch and enjoy art film after art film picked by others, but left to my own devices I gravitate to a category of film I call "Movies With Stuff Blowing Up." But within the ranks of mediocre movies I've consumed, a special category emerges: "Movies That Get Museum Work Wrong." There is nothing I love more than a good old-fashioned rant on an incredibly niche subject, so buckle up, buttercup, and prepare yourself for just a taste of the many films that misrepresent the hallowed halls of museums and the careers of those who work within them.
When in Rome (2010)
I'm a romantic comedy connoisseur, and so I can say with some assurance that When in Rome is terrible. It's not necessarily the fault of the actors (Kristen Bell, the lead, is a certified delight in the transcendent TV show The Good Place), but the plot is bad, the script is worse, and the greatest sin of all, it completely misunderstands curatorial work.
Kristen Bell's character is meant to be a rising associate curator at the Guggenheim. When we first meet her, she's directing catering and music for the opening party of an exhibition. She has a kicky little headset and everything! I don't mean to demean those who organize museum events—it's high-pressure, hard, important work that is vital to both fundraising and building a sense of community around an institution. But the idea that someone trained as a curator would also oversee events at a museum the size of the Guggenheim is preposterous. There are entire teams of people in the building who are far better prepared to do that work, Kristen! Let them do their jobs! To confirm that a curator would be a poor choice for event coordinator, I consulted with The Wolfsonian's own Alexandra O'Neale, membership and events manager extraordinaire. Alexandra runs countless events a year and oversees a building rentals program as well. When I asked whether she would ever want me, a curator, to manage catering and music at one of her events, she just laughed for five minutes straight and then said, "oh, absolutely not."
Another problem with the film, this one unrelated to museum work: it's a movie about a woman who gets stalked by four strange men across two continents (apparently this is her own fault, punishment for stealing coins out of a wishing well). So, you know, in retrospect, not a great message.
Head Over Heels (2001)
This movie is just absolute nonsense from start to finish. I'm ashamed the museum field is connected, even tangentially. Monica Potter plays a lonely paintings conservator who somehow finds herself living in an apartment with multiple supermodels and falling in love with Freddie Prinze, Jr. She doesn't know what he does for a living, but he might be an assassin, or a spy (you know, attention to detail—not a conservator's strong point or anything). Either way, she's pretty sure she sees him kill a woman, but who would let a pesky thing like murder stand in the way of true love?
Now that I think about it, the most believable part of this movie is that a paintings conservator in New York City would need four roommates to afford rent. I hate this movie so much, I refuse to provide an image to go with it.*
*Editor's note: Fair.
Black Panther (2018)
This next one is tough, because I think Black Panther is a near-perfect superhero movie. Imaginative, punchy, and superbly acted, it was one of my favorite movies of 2018. However, its portrayal of a museum heist contains one small but glaring flaw. A timely critique of museums and the way they launder the sins of colonial-era artifact looting, the scene—which takes place at The High Museum of Art masquerading as a British history museum—features Michael B. Jordan's sympathetic villain Killmonger debating the repatriation of ancient African artifacts with a snobby British curator. At a pivotal moment, she takes a sip of coffee from her to-go cup and promptly starts choking. Killmonger has poisoned the coffee, creating a distraction in order to steal the artifact in question.
My frustration with this scene has nothing to do with the curator's murder, but can best be summed up by the tweet I shared hours after seeing the movie in theaters:
Literally the only flaw in the otherwise PERFECT #BlackPanther is that the bitchy curator at the fake British Museum (@HighMuseumofArt) strolled into the gallery with a cup of coffee, like she wouldn't have ten guards yelling at her "NO LIQUIDS." #Spoilers#whenyouworkatamuseum— Shoshana Resnikoff (@smresnikoff) February 19, 2018
Wonder Woman (2017)
Continuing on the superhero trend, it's time to tackle Wonder Woman. The movie opens with Diana Prince, the titular hero, stalking across the plaza at the Musée du Louvre on her way to work as an antiquities curator. I'm willing to give the movie some leeway on her designer wardrobe: she's immortal, so she's probably had a lot of time to grow her bank account and shop the sample sale racks. But what curator has office digs that are so swanky? I don't care how high up the curatorial chain she is, no way is her office that cool (and filled with objects that should be in 👏 proper 👏 storage 👏!).
Moreover, in the Wonder Woman follow-up, Justice League (a truly dismal movie, please do not watch it), she's seen performing conservation on a Greek sculpture. I get the poetic parallels of having an actual Amazonian goddess do conservation work on ancient Greek sculpture, but a) no conservator wants a curator mucking around with their objects, and b) she needs to get that bracelet off immediately before it bangs into that poor sculpture’s face.
I asked a conservator friend whether she would ever let me clean an object in her collection. She laughed even longer than Alexandra, and then said, "absolutely not."
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
It truly pains me to critique this one, which is high on my list of favorite caper films. The movie (a remake of a 1968 version) is peak sexy 90s New York City, with a Nina Simone jazz intro which is what 13-year-old me was sure adulthood sounded like.
However, my boy Tommy C. makes some big mistakes early on in this film, and frankly I'm disappointed in him. The movie takes great pains to establish that Thomas Crown is an art lover and connoisseur. If that's true, then he knows better than to eat a croissant in the middle of the Impressionism galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. No food in the galleries, Tom!
The opening heist is itself a failure of museum work. Thomas Crown has enlisted Eastern European thieves to break into The Met and fake a robbery, distracting the guards while Crown himself steals the Monet. He arranges to have them transported to The Met inside a massive Roman horse sculpture. The delivery arrives at the loading dock, where it's met by a security guard who proceeds to open the crate, discovering the horse and leaving it uncrated in the bowels of the museum—a visual metaphor almost too on the nose.
There is so much wrong with this scene, I don't even know where to start. There would certainly have been a registrar or collections manager on hand to receive the art, and they would have immediately caught the fact that the wrong object was delivered—the museum was expecting an Etruscan sarcophagus, not a giant horse-shaped plot device. This would trigger a cascade of phone calls, emails, and angry conversations, all of which would happen before the crate was opened. By this point the oxygen tank the thieves stored inside the horse would likely have run out, but even if they did have enough air, they definitely would miss their carefully timed robbery cues waiting for the conservation staff to complete their painstaking condition report on the object. A fake robbery foiled by effective incoming object management, and a real one foiled by a lack of understanding of the inner workings of museums!
One final note, less about museum work and more about Thomas Crown's supposed bona fides as an art lover: as part of the initial movie heist, he gets the thieves to cut the air conditioning in the museum, raising the temperature throughout the building in order to disable the "thermal cameras." Any true art collector would understand the devastating effects that spikes in temperature and humidity can have on artwork, and I find it very hard to believe that Crown would threaten the wellbeing of thousands of works of art within The Met just to steal one measly Monet.
I think I've just had a revelation about The Thomas Crown Affair. Crown isn't a lovable gentleman-thief, he's a villain who threatens art held in public trust for his own rapscallion thrill-seeking ways! This movie has now been ruined for me, and I'm devastated.