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!

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  1. Love that the museum is so willing to be part of the film/ entertainment industry. I just hope they didn’t make the poor Egyptian in his glass case, warmly known as ‘ Ginger’ any part of the coming alive sequences, as a child I always had such empathy for him, felt so sorry for this person, so exposed, naked, and gawked at by the millions of visitors filing past each year… hope the mummy was given the respect it deserved!

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Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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