British Museum blog

Night at the (British) Museum: fact and fantasy

Sian Toogood, Broadcast Manager, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, British Museum

In the century or so since the birth of film, the British Museum has had many cameras within its galleries, labs and libraries. For the most part they have been filming documentaries, unravelling mysteries of the Museum’s collection, but every once in a while the Museum gets to participate in the organised chaos that is feature film production. In the past we have had Hitchcock in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, Merchant Ivory in the Assyrian Galleries and Phaedra in the Parthenon Galleries; we can now add Fox to this pantheon, with their third installment of the hugely popular Night at the Museum series: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

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I was extremely pleased when I was approached by Fox, not because it was a fantastic opportunity to get more people interested in the Museum, nor because it would be an interesting project filled with lots of exciting and complicated challenges (though it was undoubtedly both of these things). I was pleased because ever since I’ve worked at the British Museum I have consistently been asked why they didn’t film Night at the Museum here! Now I can finally say that we have.

The limitations of what is possible within the Museum meant that Fox only filmed at the Museum for three nights, from the moment the gates closed to the public to 07.00 the next day. The remainder of the British Museum scenes were shot over three months on a specially built set in Vancouver, Canada. Filming a full-scale feature in a 19th-century Grade I listed building is no joke – given some of the dramatic and explosive chase and fight scenes, it could never have been done on the actual premises.

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Those of you who have seen the film and know the Museum, even reasonably well, might wonder why parts of the fictional Museum look so different to the real thing. There are significant differences between the real Museum and the museum of the film. For one thing, our natural history collection became the basis of the Natural History Museum in 1889, so to see a triceratops you will have to go to South Kensington. Equally, if you want to see a knight in full armour, then the Wallace Collection is a much better bet. I’m afraid I can’t tell you where to find a nine-headed serpent cast in bronze though!

Apart from the objects in the collection, the layout and style of the Museum has been almost entirely altered for the film, with only the Parthenon Gallery (Room 18) and the Great Court remaining as they are in real life. So why was there a need to change the Museum to such an extent? Well, this film is the third in a series and so it had to fit in with the aesthetics of its predecessors in the trilogy, and we must allow for the artistic licence of the film’s director, Shawn Levy. This is an adventure film with a wish to get young people hooked on history. While there are some wild inventions, the Fox team also paid meticulous attention to detail for the general ‘look’ of the British Museum. For example, the Museum’s distinctive brass doorknobs were designed especially for the Museum and can be found nowhere else in the world. We sent a single pair of them to Vancouver so that they could be recreated for the film.

The Artistic Director spent a week looking at the original plans and elevations of the Parthenon and Egyptian Sculpture Galleries, and recording the details of many of the galleries, floor tiles, heating grills and columns to faithfully recreate them. Paint chips and marble samples went to Vancouver to join the doorknobs and these details, along with the great care that Fox took to recreate signage in the building, make a lot of the imagined Museum look as though these scenes could have been shot in brand new galleries of the British Museum.

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We were lucky that Night at the Museum came in only few months after we had had our own first foray into cinema production with a live broadcast from our exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Museum facilitates about 50 commercial film crews a year, shooting documentaries, music videos, fashion photo shoots and commercials, so we are well used to dealing with the requirements of film crews. But it was the experience of broadcasting live to hundreds of cinemas nationwide that gave us the confidence and base knowledge about the fabric of the building to be able to facilitate the scale of Night at the Museum. All those tedious facts about the weight loading capacity of the forecourt and the exact power provision in the Great Court suddenly became very useful!

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Fox were certainly not the average Museum film crew. They had 200 crew on site, a 40-tonne crane, helium balloon lights so large they couldn’t fit through the front door when inflated, and a myriad of other lights, cameras and stands. There was also a visual effects crew that 3d-scanned key spaces and dozens of objects from the collection to populate the film with living objects. Then there were the horses (outside) and the monkeys (inside). All of this kit, people and animals needed significant managing and overnight supervision.

We saw this film as an opportunity to interest new audiences across the world in museums in general, and to show the British Museum in particular in a new light. At the heart of the series is the idea that when you enter a museum you see the objects gathered there as if they were alive. These objects are used as gateways to other places and times and we invest them with personalities – we do not need to know everything about them to have an emotional connection with them. Visitors to the British Museum in the past might not have had the capabilities of Fox’s digital team, but in our mind’s eye I think we have all seen a lion roar or Greek sculptures walk, and we now have the opportunity to see them on the silver screen.

I doubt that we will ever have another film that is so closely linked to the Museum and its collection. I personally have been delighted and proud to have been part of this new chapter in the Museum’s film history.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is in cinemas across the UK from 19 December.

Download the free app based on the film to help you explore the Museum, and enter a competition to win a real Night at the Museum!

Filed under: At the Museum, , ,

The Kingdom and the Beauty

Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies, King’s College London

I’m very excited about the screening of The Kingdom and the Beauty this Sunday afternoon at the British Museum. When I was asked to help the Museum put together a small series of screenings as part of the programme supporting the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, this was the film I was most determined that we should get. This Sunday provides a rare opportunity, so I’d like to tell you what makes this screening so special.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty (‘Jiang shan mei ren’)is a big, lush, gloriously colourful, and unabashedly romantic musical set when the Ming dynasty was at the height of its power. A kind of Cinderella story with a tragic twist, it was made by the legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers in 1959, when they too were at the height of their power. The Kingdom and the Beauty was a huge hit across Southeast Asia, winning awards at film festivals and sparking off a series of similar Mandarin-language musicals.

The story is about the Zhengde emperor, who ruled from 1505 to 1521. He was known as a bit of a playboy, and the film shows him sneaking out of the court in Beijing and traveling south to the rich heartlands around the Yangzi Delta. There he falls in love with a village girl, played by Shaw’s leading star of the time, Linda Lin Dai. Recalled by his duties at court, he forgets about her, but she discovers she is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with him. Her character in the film is a girl with a sunny nature who suffers a tragic fate, as Lin did herself a few years later. The film is remembered for her upbeat renditions of charming and catchy tunes. But Lin killed herself in 1964, and became an icon who has endured through the ages.

Nearly all other films set in the Ming dynasty take place in the 17th century, when the dynasty begins to fade. They feature stories about patriotic outsiders trying to defend the country in the face of dynastic failure (the Ming were replaced by the Manchu Qing in 1644). The Kingdom and the Beauty is unusual in this respect as it is set in the early 16th century, and is more indicative of the splendour of the early Ming courts, as seen in the Museum’s exhibition. No film better communicates the image of the Ming as the largest, richest, and most successful civilisation of its time.

Sir Run Run Shaw, the great Shaw Brothers founder, who was also the producer of The Kingdom and the Beauty, died earlier this year. Our screening of the film, made possible by Celestial Pictures, which owns the 760-film Shaw Brothers library, is our way of honouring Sir Run Run and Shaw Brothers.

It’s a classic musical, a big, old-fashioned and indulgent pleasure for a Sunday afternoon that I think everyone would enjoy. Do join us to sit back and float off into a fantasy world of Ming luxury and romance.

Tickets for The Kingdom and the Beauty are available from the British Museum website.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , ,

Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the British Museum: film, technology and magic


Matthew Cock, British Museum

I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper (A Hitch in time) about Rescue the Hitchcock 9, a major campaign by the BFI to restore all nine surviving silent films by one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. It drew my attention because one of these is Blackmail (1929) whose climactic chase sequence was shot at the British Museum.

With three of the films, including Blackmail, the BFI have the original ‘camera negative’ – the very film that passed through Hitchcock’s camera. These, according to the Guardian, will be “fed through a digital scanner, copied using a cold light source, with each of the 100,000 odd frames given a unique number. Once in the digital realm, stored as images of 4096×3112 pixels (about double the current release-print standard), the films are subjected to careful cleaning and minute analysis for colour balance”.

A still from Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

A still from Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

My first reaction was to wonder what the restored film would reveal of the interior of the Museum 82 years ago. I did a few searches online to see if I could find out more about the scenes, and soon discovered that Hitchcock’s filming of the British Museum wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Because the chase sequence wasn’t actually filmed on location at the Museum – it was filmed at Elstree Studios using a process invented by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and refined while he was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, completed only two years earlier.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

Hitchcock talked about the filming in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich for his book The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, and explains the process.
Bogdanovich asked him:

“Was the chase through the British Museum shot there?”

“No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schüfftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, “All right, bring back the Schufftan.” I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.”

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

It’s wonderful to discover that Hitchcock used the latest special effects technology (replaced by matte shots and ultimately CGI and blue screen) to conjure up a virtual image of the vast and solid British Museum in a studio 14 miles away, to trick not only the viewer, but even the studio heads who funded the film.

Today the film conservators at the BFI, while using digital techniques to enhance the original images, in these sequences of Blackmail they are not revealing the real world, but in part the magic alchemical trick that is photography and film – where for a brief moment a virtual world was conjured up before the lens, using the same materials – glass lens, silver (on mirrors and as the basis of photographic film) and the creative vision of the maker.

This post is the result of some recent research I’ve done into films shot at the British Museum, which has resulted in a Wikipedia entry on the subject and a playlist on the British Museum’s YouTube channel. Neither is comprehensive, and I’d welcome any contributions to either of them.

Do support the BFI in the project and make a donation to Rescue the Hitchcock 9.

If you are a broadcaster or film-maker interested in the British Museum as a location, please contact the Museum’s Broadcast Unit.

Filed under: At the Museum, , , , ,

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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, set and filmed here, is now in cinemas across the UK! #NightAtTheMuseum This is Room 91, the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's used for temporary exhibitions, usually from the Department of Asia. At the moment you can see the exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand (until 11 January 2015). Here’s some #mistletoe from today's #BMAdventCalendar – fancy a kiss? Miss Piggy & Kermit the Frog are celebrating #Christmas on this 1981 badge  #BMAdventCalendar #muppets The newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery is now open! Discover over 1,500 years of Korean history A Japanese print by Morikawa Sobun of deer and pine in the snow #BMAdventCalendar
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