Some ‘Battle of the Smithsonian' Scenes Are Unreal, but Museum Plays Big Role

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The plane that Orville and Wilbur Wright used for their historic first flight in 1903 could never do the stunts it performs in the movie "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." In fact, the Wright brothers' plane, on display at the National Air and Space Museum, can barely fly at all by today's standards, according to Bob van der Linden, who runs the aeronautics department at the museum.

But the movie's thrilling chase scene that shows the 106-year-old plane soaring out of the museum doesn't bother van der Linden one bit. "That's just Hollywood," he said.

Van der Linden understands that Hollywood's romp through Air and Space will be especially fun for anyone who has been to the museum. Since it is the most-visited museum in the world (8 million people a year walk through the doors!), a lot of moviegoers will recognize the setting.

But the museum's curators think area residents will get an even bigger kick out of the movie, because if you've been in the museum more than once or twice, you will definitely see plenty of things in the film that you've come across in person. Portions of the movie were shot inside the museum, and its interior was painstakingly reproduced in a massive studio in Canada for scenes that couldn't be shot here.

"All of the design cues that scream 'Air and Space Museum' are in it," van der Linden said, including things that you might not notice when you're in the museum but that will look awfully familiar on screen, such as the marble walls, carpeting and worn brass railings. "I can see why movies cost millions of dollars to make," van der Linden said.

When you see the movie, spotting the exhibits you know will add another layer of fun, as will figuring out which scenes were shot in the real museum and which scenes were shot on the set. (Hint: Look for the exhibits that aren't where they usually are!)

In all the Air and Space scenes, you'll see museum favorites, including Able the space-flying monkey, who is giggle-inducing in the film but normally can be found in a display case in Gallery 210. That's also where you'll find the massive F-1 rocket engine that, in person, makes you feel so tiny and powers up dramatically in the film.

The huge DC-7 airplane, the Apollo lunar lander and historic female aviator Amelia Earhart's bright red plane also are easy to spot in the film and will make you feel especially fortunate to have one of the world's great museums in your back yard.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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