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Museum in a movie: Thomas Crowne Affair review

Let’s talk about the 1999 film The Thomas Crowne Affair. I decided to watch it for our “Museums in Movies” series because of how prominently it is featured in the tiny genre. When you look at lists of museum movies this one is always near the top. The film is decently reviewed. A combination of the prevalence, critical response, and the presence of young Pierce Brosnan (yum) made me hopeful for the film. My goal was to use it as the basis for an intellectual discussion of the depiction of museum thefts in movies. I even recruited my film snob husband to watch it with me.

However, an intellectual discussion of The Thomas Crowne Affair is not the post you are getting. Within two minutes of the movie starting, I was yelling at the television. By minute five I was messaging museum friends disparaging comments. It was bloody ridiculous. There are Scooby-Doo episodes that depict museums with greater accuracy.

This is now a complaint post.

Picture the opening scene of the movie; bear with me, the description is long for a reason.

We open on Thomas Crowne (Brosnan) eating breakfast in the Impressionist gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). He calmly chats with a guard. Thirty minutes later the MET is being robbed. Thieves have disabled the museum’s air conditioning. A gigantic horse sculpture is delivered and accepted even though it is not expected by the staff. It is left sitting in the delivery bay. Thieves carve their way out of the sculpture and then begin to make their way through the air ducts. They exit into a restroom where they change into museum docent/ guard uniforms. Next, the thieves proceed to clear the Impressionist gallery of visitors claiming it is going to be cleaned. Our main character, and spoiler alert, actual thief alerts a museum staffer of the situation. The actual guard confronts fake guards, eventually pulling out an extendable electrified baton to strike the thieves. An alarm is set off. Metal bars descend from doorways to block exits. Thomas Crowne slips in during the chaos to steal the Monet. Cops promptly arrive, guns drawn to arrest the thieves Crowne has set up. Crowne calmly walks out of the museum with the Monet in a briefcase.

No wonder the MET refused to contribute to the movie in any way. Let’s break down the sins.

  1. Food in the gallery Even occasional museum visitors know food and beverages are not allowed in the galleries. The guard would have politely invited him to eat in the museum restaurant.

  2. Lack of panicking staff - Temperatures in the Impressionist gallery of the MET were sweltering to the point docents and visitors have visible sweat running down their faces. Yet, there are no collections staff running around panicking. No one is seen sprinting down the New York Streets to purchase portable air conditioners. Intellectually priceless art is being abandoned to a damaging wet heat at one of the largest and wealthiest museums in the world.

  3. Lack of confused staff - An absolutely massive horse sculpture was delivered without anyone expecting it. Yet again, no collections staff appears. After a phone call, everyone shrugs it off. Even at a museum as large as the MET horse sculpture large enough to hide several grown men arriving unaccounted is going to raise eyebrows. Directors are going to show up to look at the paperwork. At the very least some nosy staffers are going to stop by the loading dock to glimpse the thing.

  4. Weapons – Museum guards are rarely armed. When they are armed it is not with extendable, electrified batons they whip out of their pocket. I mean, come on.

  5. Security The museum security in the movie is shown to be epic. During the robbery, steel bars descend from door frames. Later in the movie, it is revealed the museum also has heat-sensing cameras, as well as metal doors that automatically deploy to cover the art when the sprinklers are triggered. All of this would be nice. However, the MET is not a bank vault. Not even they have security this extensive. The fake high security makes it even more ridiculous they wouldn’t have done something about the AC.

I know The Thomas Crowne Affair is a movie. Things were done for dramatic effect. What makes me angry is the complete lack of reality. Movies like this are part of the reason why people have no clue what it is like to work in a museum. Even if the MET didn’t want to help, someone with inside knowledge would have happily advised the film crew. A movie that features a museum so centrally to the plot could have at least made some effort to be factual in its depiction.

To conclude I would like to point out two things the movie did get right:

  1. The museum director was shown to be an old, white man. Accurate.

  2. Someone could walk out of a museum with a Monet in a briefcase. See our podcast for proof.

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