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Museums in the Movies – Night at the Museum

Who hasn’t wondered what happens after we close up the museum for the night? Hopefully nothing like what goes on in the movie Night at the Museum!

There aren’t many movies out there that primarily take place in a museum. It is refreshing to find a movie that is not only entertaining, but makes people want to go visit the museums in their own neighborhoods!

In Night at the Museum, Larry, played by Ben Stiller, is a divorced father who has had trouble holding down a steady job. At the urging of his ex-wife, who threatens to prevent him from seeing their son if he doesn’t get his life together, Larry visits an employment agency. The agent (who was played by Ben’s real-life mom!) reluctantly sends him to interview at the Museum of Natural History.

In a theme that is so close to reality for those of us who really work in the museum field, budget cuts are forcing the museum to downsize. The powers that be want to replace the three retiring night guards with one person in order to save money.

They barely interview Larry before deciding he’s “the one.” They hand him a uniform, a big ring of keys, and a tattered “instruction manual.” After warning him to do everything in the manual in the order that it is written, the three of them head out the door.

Larry is left alone in the big, empty museum. After falling asleep, he awakes to find the large dinosaur skeleton in the main lobby is missing. How could that have happened when he was dozing just a few feet away?

He is startled to discover that the bones have come to life, and the large dinosaur is running all over the museum. Panicked, he calls one of the guards, who tells him to “just follow the instruction manual.”

Larry looks down and sees that #1 reads, “Throw the bone,” just as the dinosaur drops a large rib bone in front of him. He picks it up, and the dinosaur bends down, wagging his behind like an excited cat or dog about to play fetch.

Larry throws the bone, and much to his surprise, the dinosaur goes running after it! He really does want to play fetch!

As he makes his rounds, he discovers everything in the museum has come to life. Victorian couples are strolling the halls, the animals are running amok, and even the tiny dioramas are bustling with activity.

He checks the next thing on the list, which says “Lock up the lions or they will eat you.” In the animal exhibits, he meets a crafty little monkey, who ends up stealing the instruction book and tearing it up. I liked where the instructions were going and would have liked to see a little more of that. Instead, Larry has to strike out on his own and learn about the history of everything in the museum so he can control the nighttime chaos.

There is a surprising plot twist toward the end that I did not see coming, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie. And the film does raise some interesting questions about the difference between a wax figure and the real thing.

The movie doesn’t delve too deep into history. It is mostly a glossing over, which, as a historian, I would have liked to have seen developed a little bit more. But for a fun, positive, action-packed museum movie, I highly recommend it.

Coming Memorial Day 2009! Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian



The junior novelization of the movie:




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