Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology: A Museum Exhibit That Merges Reality and Illusion


Indiana Jones ExhibitIndiana Jones Exhibit

Image: Montreal Science Centre

I saw the Ark of the Covenant and lived!

Of course, I didn’t open it. I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to. The Ark of the Covenant, together with the most memorable props from the four Indiana Jones movies, were on display behind Plexiglas at the Montréal Science Centre, part of an exhibit entitled “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology.”

The exhibit is a marvel, featuring props, costumes, concept art, film clips and behind the scenes video on loan from the Lucasfilm Archives. There was Indy’s hat and whip, the golden idol he tries to steal in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (inspired by a “real” archeological artifact of a female god giving birth — which, it turns out was a fake!), a side view sketch of path of the famous rolling boulder triggered when Indy tried to switch the idol with a bag of sand and much more. And I got a real appreciation for how much detail goes into each little element of a scene. Even up close, Shia LaBeouf’s 1940s motorcycle from The Crystal Skull, the books and maps seen in Indy’s office, the mummified remains of Francisco de Orellana, all looked (to this untrained eye) completely authentic, even though I knew they were an illusion.

But “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” is much more than just a geek-out for Indy fans. Along with the movie memorabilia, the exhibit showcases actual artifacts from the collections of the Penn Museum and the National Geographic Society. Using Indiana Jones to teach people about archeology is truly a great idea, and it works so well! The “Archaeological Zones” cleverly tie in with locations from the Indiana Jones films, including the Nazca Lines in Peru, and with the archeological tools and methods Indy uses, such as being able to read ancient languages or put an artifact in its proper context. Among the actual artifacts are pieces of fine gold jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in ancient Mesopotamia; an Egyptian funerary stela (an ankh-shaped stone marker); and Peruvian pottery. We also get to see the stories, in words and pictures taken from the pages of National Geographic, of real-life archeologists such as the infamous Hiram Bingham (discoverer of Machu Picchu). For me, it was hard to say which was more exciting — seeing a fragment of papyrus from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra that Indy uses to find the Ark!

As wonderful as it is, this exhibit has some features that may give families pause. For one thing, going through the entire exhibit takes over two hours. That’s a long time to walk around on a hard floor, especially when a crowd builds up around you. I was not surprised to hear more than one toddler melting down part-way through. (Although the screams did fit in nicely with the cavernous exhibit.) A little more seating would have been nice.

Also, upon entering, every visitor is given a leather-clad “video companion” -– basically, a tablet that you use to play audio and video clips for each display. At some points it is possible to be standing in front of a video screen playing a scene from one of the Indiana Jones movies, watching a related slideshow on the handheld device, and reading the printed display card on the wall in front of you –- quite the information overload. The device is also used to play a treasure hunt game, which younger kids seemed to enjoy. (My device lost its wi-fi at a critical moment, and so I wasn’t able to complete my quest.)

My feelings about the use of the video companion are mixed. On the one hand, it did make it possible for both French and English speakers in bilingual Montreal to enjoy the video exhibits simultaneously. And I will say I didn’t see a single person checking their cell phone. On the other hand, it made it pretty much impossible to talk to your companions, making the two-plus hours in the exhibit largely a solo experience.

Finally, I was a little disappointed that photos are not allowed (for copyright reasons, we were told). I would have loved a picture of my kids standing next to the crystal skeletons. There wasn’t even much in the way of souvenir photos to make up for it (just a small sales area at the end selling kid-sized Indy hats and whips). Normally, I wouldn’t complain about the lack of marketing, but in this case…

All that aside, though, this is one exhibit you should see if you get the chance. “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology” will run at the Montréal Science Centre through September 18, 2011. After that, it is slated to travel to Europe, Asia and the Pacific — tragically, according to the exhibit’s Facebook page, there are no other North American dates.

And for one last little treat, here’s what it looks like when the Ark of the Covenant is unpacked from that crate, for real:

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