My niece and nephew are 11 and 14, respectively. Nicole wants to be a math teacher, and Nick would like to teach science. They're smart kids with a curiosity about the world, so I'm bringing them to the American premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” at the Discovery Science Center to give me a kid's-eye view of the exhibition's neat blend of pop culture and science. Both kids have seen parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark on television, but neither has solid memories of the film. Prior to this conversation, I had assumed Jones' adventures were as ubiquitous as Star Wars, but that was until I realized the first film came out way before these guys were even born, with the last film arriving in 2008, when Nick was 10 and Nicole was 7. Without the benefit of more sequels, robots, light sabers and cartoon series, the films just aren't on their radar.
It takes the kids seconds to figure out how to use the PSP-sized, leather-wrapped multimedia guides we're handed. Putting on the headphones, the gravelly voice of Harrison Ford cordially welcomes us as we take a gander at the archetypal (to my generation, at least) baggy slacks, leather jacket, whip and dusty fedora. While that costume brings to me a flood of memories, the kids discover their favorite part of the tour: an interactive video game in which you pass the guide over small pillars placed throughout the show. Every time you do, you're given puzzles to play to secure a missing piece of an ancient relic. Despite my years of video-game play, they were much better at it than I was, as I often punched through the instructions too quickly, leaving myself stranded as to what exactly I was supposed to discover. Noticing I was—ahem—slower in locating the pieces, the kids offered to help or just pointedly eyed me, asking, “Do you want us to just tell you where the clue is?”
Inside the main hall, short featurettes play when you type into the guides numbers next to each exhibit, providing bite-sized DVD extras on special effects and behind-the-scenes documentation about several of the action sequences. While I knew most of the DVD filler anecdotally, it was the pulpy factual information behind the fiction—from cremation in China to biblical mythology and Nazi history to the occult quackery of crystal skulls and the conspiratorial Knights Templars—that caught my attention.
The part of the exhibition devoted to real archeologists is informative but aimed more at adults. I saw very few paying much attention to the typed notes, papyrus and funerary stelas on display, and Nick and Nicole were no exception. They stopped and glanced at a couple of small artifacts, partly out of curiosity, but pottery is not the most commanding of art forms, ancient or not. The kids decided to play the archeological game a second time as I walked through and really only came back to the room to find clues, the occasional new detail catching their eyes and making them linger.
Over bagels the next morning, both kids liked the exhibit enough to rate it a 9 out of 10. Did they like it enough to see the movies they missed? No.
Both also said if I hadn't told them the movies were about an archeologist, they're not so sure they would have seen how the two seemingly disparate sections fit together.
Nick: “Although we figured it out by the end.”
Nicole: “It made me want to learn more about archeology, but it didn't make me want to be an archeologist.” Would they recommend it for other kids? Nick: “Depends on what kind of kid they are. If they're into science or adventure, I think they'd like it. If they're into video games . . . not so much.”
George Lucas is a champion of monetizing his franchises, and it's tempting to dismiss this exhibit as just another way for LucasFilm to line its pockets after critics butchered Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that forgettable flick that killed the franchise, with National Geographic hitching along for the ride, hoping to pump up video sales and cable-television viewers.
There's nary a word about the films as cultural phenomenon (if a box-office smash can accurately be considered a phenom) or discussion about antiquities dealers as looters of Third World culture, but at exhibit's end, it made me want to revisit the movies, films I had long ago thrown into the trash heap of youthful enthusiasm. Digging out that 30-year-old adventure film will be my first step, and surprise, surprise: LucasFilm just released the entire set on Blu-Ray.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.