The 10 best film scenes in museums

From covert meetings between spies and elaborate art heists to the beginnings of love affairs and tender moments of self-reflection, museums have provided some of the most memorable scenes in film.

In our latest feature, we select our 10 favourite museum film scenes. 

1. Vertigo (1958)

'Oh that's Carlotta'

Hitchcock's film Vertigo tells the story of San Francisco detective Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) and his obsession with the mysterious Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). The film features the Legion of Honor as the location for a pivotal scene in the story. In the film, Scotty, hired by her supposedly concerned husband, tails Madeleine through the city to the museum, where she sits on a bench in the museum’s Gallery 6. There, she stares at the Portrait of Carlotta, a painting of a 19th-century San Francisco resident who bears a striking resemblance to her.

Visitors to the Legion of Honor won't be able to find the Portrait of Carlotta on view since it was a prop created for the film and removed from the Legion once filming was completed. The painting was in fact created by American Abstract Expressionist artist John Ferren. 

 

2. Play it again, Sam (1972) 

Allan: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?

Museum girl: Yes, it is.

Allan: What does it say to you?

Museum girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum girl: Committing suicide.

Allan: What about Friday night?

Play it Again Sam is a film directed by Herbert Ross and written by Woody Allen. Based on a stage play, the film tells the story of Allan Felix (Woody Allen), a neurotic film critic obsessed with the film Casablanca and his attempts to get over his wife leaving him by dating again. Helping Allan meet new women are his good friends Dick (Tony Roberts) and Linda Christie (Diane Keaton). Dick and Linda fix him up with a succession of dates, all of which end disastrously  Allan is taken to the museum by Linda to find a more intellectual date. Perhaps he should have stepped away from the Jackson Pollock.

 

3. Manhattan (1979)

'You liked the plexiglass huh?'

In this 1979 film, Woody Allen co-stars as Isaac Davis, a twice-divorced 42-year-old television comedy writer who dates a 17-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway) but falls in love with his best friend's mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton).  The film is all about art: the characters talk endlessly about art, they meet in museums and galleries, they write and teach about art, they create art. So it's no surprise that art galleries and museums are an important backdrop to many scenes in the film with the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum, the MoMA, and the Whitney Museum all taking on starring roles such as in this glorious scene of cultural jousting between Mary and Isaac.

 

Shot in black and white, the film makes New York and its great museums into art as in this scene where  Isaac and Mary are caught in a thunderstorm and have to seek refuge in the nearby Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

4. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

'This picture was in no way authorized, sponsored or endorsed by any museum'.

That comes as no surprise as Tiernan's remake of the Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway original switches the central robbery from a bank to a museum.

An attempted robbery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fails when museum employees discover imposters posing as staff. In all the confusion of locking down the museum and capturing the robbers, billionaire Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) slips into an adjacent room and steals the painting of San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk by Monet all to the tune of Nina Simone's Sinnerman.

5. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

John Hughes' 1986 film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off follows Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane and his best friend Cameron as they skip school in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. The friends spend their day off stealing a car, dancing in a parade, faking an identity to gain access to a fancy restaurant and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago

Set to The Dream Academy’s cover of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” the scene filmed at the Art Institute of Chicago is undeniably odd, with its unusual lengthy close-ups, lack of dialogue and dreamy background music. The scene follows the three friends as they mimic the positioning of a Rodin statue and run through the gallery with a group of children. But once separated from his friends, Cameron finds himself in a moment of serious introspection in front of George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

The camera cuts back and forth between Cameron’s face and the face of the young girl at the centre of the pointillist painting. Each time Cameron looks, the camera zooms in farther and farther into the painting so that eventually the viewer can’t see anything.

In his commentary about the film, Director John Hughes explains:

'This is the Chicago Art Institute, which when I was in high school was a place of refuge for me. I went there quite a bit. I loved it. I knew all the paintings, I knew the building, and this was a chance for me to go back into this building and show the paintings that were my favorite'

Hughes explains why Cameron stares at the Seurat: 'I used it in this context to see---he’s looking at that little girl—which again is, a mother and a child. The closer he looks at the child, the less he sees, of course, with this style of painting. But the more he looks at it, there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him (Cameron), the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.'

6. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

The plot may have been paper thin but the 2003 film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action has a very clever museum scene where Elmer Fudd chasing Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny through the Louvre and into some of the world's most famous paintings: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat; The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí and The Scream by Edvard Munch.

7. Russian Ark (2002)

The most ambitious and impressive shot of an art gallery scene is Alexander Sokurov's 2002 experimental drama, Russian Ark, which was filmed in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. It is the first feature film created in a single take and follows an unnamed narrator wandering through the rooms of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, where 300 years of Russian history are being acted out by a cast of thousands. 

8. Bande à Part (1964)

For his 1964 film, Director Jean-Luc Godard improvised a scene in which the main characters, Franz, Arthur, and Odile attempt to break the world record for running through the Louvre museum. The narration informs the viewer that their time was 9 minutes and 43 seconds, which broke the record set by Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco at 9 minutes and 45 seconds. 

The film-makers didn't get permission to film in the museum, so it had to be captured in one take; the guards trying to stop the trio are not actors.

 

9. Dressed to Kill (1980)

The museum scene in Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill is lengthy and silent but oh so powerful. The scene follows a couple during a flirtatious game of cat and mouse. 

For nearly nine dialogue-free minutes, New York housewife Kate wanders through the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (played by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and eventually catches the eye of what appears to be the mystery man of her fantasies. She alternately pursues and is pursued by the stranger until the two finally come together,

10. Blackmail (1929)

Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film is also the first of his movies to contain a set-piece at a famous landmark. Blackmail is the story of a grocer’s daughter, Alice White (Anny Ondra), who kills a man in self-defence and conceals the crime, only to find herself blackmailed by a low-life criminal. The drama comes to a head with a pursuit through the British Museum before an ascent up onto the domed roof of the library, with the cornered blackmailer shown in silhouette against the sky.

In reality, it was too dark to film these sequences in the museum, so Hitchcock shot the action in a studio with transparencies as backdrops. 

Honourable mentions go to:

Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983) 

This one-hour musical follows the Sesame Street gang as they are accidentally locked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight. The title comes from a song sang by the Cookie Monster and his human friend, Bob McGrath in front of Still Life with Ham, a painting by Philippe Rousseau which Cookie Monster tries to devour. 

 

Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993) 

In this stop-motion animated short film directed by Nick Park at Aardman Animations, arch-villain Feathers McGraw uses mild-mannered inventor, Wallace and his robotic Techno Trousers to break into Wigan Town museum and steal a diamond. 

 

Other museum film scenes

Topkapi (1964) -Topkapi Palace Museum

How To Steal A Million (1966) - Kléber-Lafayette Museum

The Hot Rock – How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons (1972) - Brooklyn Museum

One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975) - Natural History Museum

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - The Smithsonian Institution

Manhunter (1986) - High Museum of Art

Maurice (1987) - British Museum

Batman (1989) - Flugelheim Museum

Ghostbusters 2 (1989) - Manhattan Museum of Art

The Mummy Returns (2001) - The British Museum

The Mummy (1999) - Cairo Museum of Antiquities

The Relic (1997) - Chicago Museum of Natural History

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2002) - Coolsonian Criminology Museum

Hitch (2005) - Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Match Point (2005) - Tate Modern

The Da Vinci Code (2006) - The Louvre

Night at the Museum (2006) - American Museum of Natural History

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) -The Smithsonian Institution (National Air & Space Museum; National Gallery of Art; Smithsonian Castle; National Museum of Natural History)

The International (2009) - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) - Metropolitan Museum of Art

When in Rome (2010) -Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 

Let us know what we've forgotten and museum film scenes are your favourite in the comments below.

 


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