Yes, we know from Cornelius Holtorf that Archaeology is a Brand. Yes, we know that Indiana Jones is all in good fun (maybe) and it has attracted enormous numbers of students from comfortable industrialized countries to study archaeology.
But what is inside the container? There has always been faith among the archaeological profession– and indeed among some of our esteemed cultural institutions– that beneath the seductive veneer of popular culture, is (or could be) the prospect of recruiting a new generation to serious, productive, and intellectually sound archaeology.
I have never bought that argument. I have always thought that the images provided by the Indiana Jones pseudo-1930s (and now 1950s) Saturday afternoon serials contain the same racist vision of snatching ancient treasure from the hands of benighted natives and evil powers that the original Saturday afternoon serials did. I gives all the wrong messages about why we should be interested in the past and how to relate to it as something more than mysterious, valuable treasure. But I was royally flamed in the Washington Post for saying exactly that.
Of course as we all know, life imitates art with frightening frequency in our celebrity culture. Zahi Hawass wears (and even authorizes the sale of branded) Indiana Jones-style fedoras. Harrison Ford has been appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Archaeological Institute of America, and government antiquities services around the world tout their ancient monuments and exotic landscapes as the places where one of the Indiana Jones movies was filmed.
At what point does life not just imitate art but become its marketing mechanism? At what point do the whip and the gun actually BECOME archaeology?
The latest cultural confection from the National Geographic Society shows that, in fact, that the symbol and substance have become inextricably (and profitably intertwined). There has been much discussion about the marketing of blockbuster exhibitions with high admission prices outside usual museums. But this proposed traveling exhibition so aggressively mixes hype and celebrity mystique that there is hardly any room left for its supposed reason.
Watch the following commercial and tell me if the appeal is based on the chance for visitors to see Indiana Jones “props and costumes” and buy Indiana Jones memorabilia or to learn about something as vague and misunderstood as “Archaeology.”
Tell me if you disagree.