Digging Up Indy | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

Digging Up Indy

Hollywood meets history in a Montréal exhibition


Published July 20, 2011 at 10:40 a.m.

Thirty years ago, I bought a brown fedora and a sparkly blue scarf from Burlington’s Old Gold — an innocent-seeming purchase that was actually a testament to obsession. I alone knew both items were talismans of my love for the just-released retro adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark. (The fedora needs no explanation; the scarf resembled the one Marion Ravenwood wore when she slugged Indiana Jones in the jaw.)

In those naïve, pre-Internet days, I surmised I was the biggest Indy fan in Lamoille County, probably in Vermont, possibly anywhere. Just as kids today dream of attending Hogwarts, I yearned to decipher ancient inscriptions, thwart Nazis and drink an enormous Nepalese man under the table. I would never have shared this fantasy with my middle school classmates. But, three decades and three more Indy movies later, I had no problem discussing it with fellow adult Sophie Desbiens, communications project manager for Montréal’s X3 Productions.

Desbiens was publicizing a traveling exhibition designed by her company, “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology,” which is currently on view at the Montréal Science Centre. But it was hard to doubt her personal Indy fan credentials as she talked fervently about watching the actual Lost Ark of the Covenant (well, the prop that represented it) arrive in a wooden crate, just like in the movie. Like me, Desbiens remembered the release of the first film and embracing Marion Ravenwood as a role model: “She kicked ass!”

It may well be true, as spoilsport critics noted back in 1981, that Raiders is just a blown-up version of old-time movie serials; that it ushered in an age of dumbed-down blockbusters; and that real archaeology is more about cataloging pottery shards than outrunning bullets and boulders. But tell that to the people of all ages who lined up for “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” on a recent Friday afternoon. For better or worse, the bullwhip-swinging archaeologist still inspires major fan love. Would the one-of-a-kind exhibit, in Montréal on its first and only North American stop, spur me to buy another fedora? I’d come to find out.

Initiated by Lucasfilm to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its lucrative property, “Indiana Jones” is an attempt to marry Hollywood glitz and fan nostalgia to an educational mission. It’s got original props, costumes and movie clips, all on loan from George Lucas. But it’s also got real artifacts and archaeological documents, courtesy of the National Geographic Society and the Penn Museum.

As visitors enter the exhibit, no less an authority than Harrison Ford informs them, in a recorded greeting, that the four Indy films “helped inspire a generation of young scientists to delve into our collective past.” In other words, just as dolphin flicks make kids vow to study marine biology (until they realize how much math is involved), Indy breeds new archaeologists.

To further this worthy aim, and to give adult visitors facts to go with their fiction, the exhibition’s creators have balanced each “fun,” movie-focused section of “Indiana Jones” with a red-meat introduction to the real-life techniques of archaeological investigation. An interactive game aims to keep younger visitors engaged through the educational stretches by giving them simple challenges that make them think like fledgling archaeologists.

All this is tied together by the exhibition’s high-tech format — which, depending on how comfortable you are consulting a smartphone-like device in a room full of people and visual distractions, is either a blessing or a curse.

At the entrance to “Indiana Jones,” each visitor receives an “interactive video companion,” a device about the size of an early-’80s Texas Instruments calculator, enclosed in a leather-look, Indy-esque pouch with a wrist strap. Inside the exhibit hall you can simply wander from display case to display case in the traditional manner, learning about objects from their accompanying legends. But you can also enter codes on the device’s touch screen, as instructed by signs, and watch supplementary video presentations in the palm of your hand. Naturally, the audio is available in both English and French.

For instance, take the case exhibiting the costume that actress Karen Allen wore when she played Marion in Raiders’ bar scene. After I’d gawked at the mannequin long enough to register that Marion’s opulent, Nepalese-style scarf was nothing like the one I’d bought at Old Gold, I entered a code and watched a “making of” featurette from which I learned that the Himalayan bar set and Styrofoam snow were nearly immolated during shooting.

Meanwhile, above me, a flat screen looped clips from the scene in question. I plugged in another code, and my device gave me the movie’s audio. I could watch a funky 1930s seltzer bottle appear on screen and glance down to find the very same prop bottle displayed in front of me.

For a movie nerd, these aha! moments compensated for the overload sensation of having my attention simultaneously demanded by shiny physical objects, texts and multiple screens. I gazed at the golden statuette Indy pilfered in the first film’s opening sequence (a prop that, Desbiens later assured me, is “very heavy”) and learned from my device that it was based on an archaeological hoax, a fake fertility idol manufactured in the 19th century. I marveled at Kate Capshaw’s stunning dress from her nightclub number in the second movie, then discovered that it was stitched with actual 1920s and ’30s sequins, “eaten by elephants,” and reconstructed — but was now so tight the actress could barely move. And I realized I’d forgotten pretty much everything that happened in Indy 3 (“the one with Sean Connery”) and Indy 4 (“the one with aliens and CGI”).

Young fans — of whom there were many at the exhibition — may bring a whole different perspective. I asked Desbiens whether the kids who pointed excitedly at the vintage Harley ridden by Shia LaBeouf’s character in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) had even seen the original Raiders. Often they have, she said, thanks to a parent: “It’s handed down by the dad, typically. They’re excited by the adventure part of it.”

The kids were excited, for sure — many played the interactive game, which involved solving puzzles on the handheld device or swiping it over physical features of the exhibit. In the gift shop, said Desbiens, they snapped up felt fedoras and plastic bullwhips. But were they being educated?

“Indiana Jones” doesn’t boast any awe-inspiring non-Hollywood artifacts. There’s nothing to compete with, say, the Aztec and Maya halls of the American Museum of Natural History, which are as atmospheric as any haunted tomb explored by Indy. But, for visitors who didn’t mind the congestion in these narrow subsections of the exhibit — which alternate with the larger, movie-devoted rooms — the “real archaeology” was illuminating enough.

The first educational segment, called “Discovery: Objects in Context,” introduced us to a group of “real-life Indys” who documented discoveries such as Machu Picchu for early 20th-century National Geographic, making them the “scientific rock stars of their day.”

After a spoon-fed explanation of the painstaking process of multilayer excavation and stratigraphy came a section on “Decoding and Analysis.” Here we got to peruse a funerary stela bearing mysterious symbols, and to learn how intrepid investigator Tatiana Proskouriakoff decoded the glyphs of the Maya. (Her process wasn’t exactly action packed, but impressive all the same.) A third section, paired with the goofy, nine-foot movie aliens of Crystal Skull, examined how archaeologists explore “the Unexplained,” using the giant geoglyphs of the Peruvian Nazca people as an example.

Finally, “Local Archaeology: Welcome Home” showed visitors the fruit of digs in the Montréal area. While the familiar results were a bit underwhelming — Native American stone tools, blue-and-white 19th-century pottery — they brought home the point that archaeology isn’t always about collecting glittering prizes. Or about quipping, dodging and shooting.

After it leaves Montréal in September, “Indiana Jones” will proceed to 11 more major cities in Europe, Asia and Australia, said Desbiens. On each stop, the “Local Archaeology” section will be revamped so the globe-trotting exhibit brings visitors “back home to where [they] are.”

It’s only because of a lucky accident, Desbiens added, that North Americans have a chance to see the exhibit at all. Gsmprjct°, one of the three Montréal companies that recently teamed up to form X3 Productions, has a strong track record of creating touring and permanent museum installations from Singapore to Strasbourg. “Indiana Jones” was designed specifically for such overseas markets, said Desbiens, but “we wanted to open it in our hometown.”

So Americans who crave a glimpse into George Lucas’ treasure trove will need to cross the border. The exhibit, which takes about two hours to peruse — more, if you sink time into the substantial National Geographic video segments — offers both fans and nonfans plenty to look at, even if it doesn’t delve particularly deep into the archaeological process.

But then, that wasn’t what I’d come for. The “artifact” that fascinated me most was a Hollywood production designer’s architectural drawing of the famous “rolling ball sequence” from the Raiders opening. It featured cryptic inscriptions in spare, Al Hirschfeld-esque handwriting, such as “Clitoral type stalactites” and (beside the temple’s face-like entrance) “Note: Teeth to be knocked out on Impact.”

The careful sketch, now eclipsed by its filmic realization, was a reminder of all the layers of unsung craftsmanship that go into the look and feel of a movie that sticks with us through the decades. As cultural monuments go, Raiders isn’t Machu Picchu or the pyramids, but for me, digging into those strata was worth the price of admission.