The Indiana Jones franchise follows the daring and heroic adventures of Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, an archaeology professor. He goes out into the world, on behalf of the school where he teaches and its museum to save the artifacts of the world. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film of the franchise, being set in the late 1930s, as the Nazi Party began gaining more traction and seeking power. It set the tone for the rest of the franchise, where Jones—as described by George Lucas—is a James Bond-like character without the hardware. He’s an American, figuring it out as he goes, bootstrap pulling and all that.
Dr. Jones is tasked by the school’s administration to go find the Ark of the Covenant, as talk within the archaeological community grew of its location. They seek it to increase the prestige of the collection, and to “protect” it from falling into the “wrong” hands. In his quest, Jones discovers that there are others interested in finding it: Nazis. Ah, yes, our villains.
The great American triumph of the 20th century was World War II; as much of our national pride is rooted in military victories and conquests. Indiana Jones combines and furthers this narrative centered on pride and identity by equating archaeological finds with patriotic duty. It’s all wrapped up nicely in a mission to save the world. In this case, Jones aims to do so by putting the world’s treasures in a museum, where they will be protected, and their uses controlled.
Americans love the combination! It’s an action film where an American kicks German ass in fantastic style. And because America is a settler colonist nation, it makes sense to us to put important things in museums, the place where things are protected, catalogued, and put on display for the public—where we can collectively revel in the victory.
As museum professionals, we should remain mindful of the power of objects and national identity. We have the ability to connect so deeply with the material, even if we can’t actually touch it, we create bonds and associations with things. The perfect example of this is the Elgin Marbles. Yes, I know. They are a symbol of Greece, having come from the Parthenon in Athens, and yet have been held in public trust in London. The main reason that the British Museum won’t repatriate? National identity. We even know them as the Elgin Marbles more so than the Parthenon Marbles because they were purchased by Elgin, an Englishman, and gifted to the British Museum. The legality of the situation is one thing, but the ethical dilemma is another. The debate over these Marbles had occurred in nearly every museum-related class, pretty much ever.
In the end, however, it boils down to public trust. Within that, I would also include public perception and expectations for display, care, and connection. These connections can make ethical decisions, like repatriation, difficult. And, yes, there are things that belong in museums—but, that doesn’t mean they belong in your museum.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an emerging art museum curator & educator. If you have questions for her, please comment below or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org