Smithsonian On Display

It Hopes 'Night At The Museum' Sequel Will Give It A Boost In Attendance

April 30, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

Nearly 3 million people visited Washington's Smithsonian Institution last summer, and that was without any help from Ben Stiller. Imagine what will happen come May 22, when Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian opens, and suddenly it becomes cool to visit the nation's attic.

"Yes, we are aware of the enormous effect that the movies can have on museums," says Claire Brown, communications director for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, where much of the sequel to 2006's enormously successful Night at the Museum is set. "It encourages kids to use their imagination, to see museums as a source not only for education, but also for the kind of magic that can only be obtained from actually seeing an artifact, that sense of connection."

Yeah, and it persuades a lot more tourists to come through the museum doors in the first place. The original Night at the Museum starring Stiller as a security guard who discovers that all the fake, fossilized and stuffed creatures in New York's American Museum of Natural History come to life at night, brought in nearly $251 million at the U.S. box office. More important, at least for officials at the Smithsonian, attendance at the 140-year-old New York museum rose markedly.

"While it's obviously a fantasy, and most of the objects that were in the story aren't even in that museum, they noticed a 25 percent increase in attendance," says Bob van der Linden, a curator at the air and space museum. "That's certainly nothing to sneeze at."

Stiller reprises his role as single-dad security guard Larry Daley in the new film. His character journeys to Washington when two tiny figures from the New York museum, a Roman centurion played by Steve Coogan and a cowboy played by Owen Wilson, are mistakenly shipped off to the Smithsonian. Apparently, the magic that worked so well in New York follows Daley down the Interstate 95 corridor: Among the figures he encounters in Washington are Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Albert Einstein (Eugene Levy) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

"It's a very funny story," promises van der Linden, who not only watched over much of the Washington filming - "The job of a curator at a film shoot is to make sure they don't break anything," he says - but visited the Vancouver soundstages where parts of the Smithsonian were re-created and most of the filming was done.

"If you know this museum and know what it looks like," he says, "you'll see that they did a fabulous job of re-creating the site."

Brown, who got to see the nearly finished movie at a Los Angeles screening in March ("It's very funny," she promises), says the Smithsonian is looking to take full advantage of its star status. Most of the film's cast will be in Washington for its world premiere, set for May 15 at the air and space museum's IMAX theater.

Smithsonian staffers are designing special logos to identify objects shown in the movie, including the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Archie Bunker's chair from All In the Family (on display at the Museum of American History), as well as the Wright Brothers' plane and the stuffed remains of a monkey that, in 1959, was the first creature to fly into space aboard a U.S. aircraft and return alive.

And this summer, docents will be leading tours that focus on parts of the museum showcased in the movie.

Van der Linden, for one, is looking forward to shining a spotlight on all the real - if, regrettably, inanimate - objects his museum and others that are part of the Smithsonian have to offer.

"If we can get them in the building and looking at the artifacts, that's a good thing for everybody," he says. "I don't know if we'll go up 25 percent, but that would be wonderful."

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