Visiting the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology museum exhibition

Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology - Discovery Science Center

Last week, my Fan Force chapter made a club trip to see the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibition at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, California. Nearly finished with its first American stop, the exhibition is great for both fans of the Indiana Jones films and fans of archaeology, and I’d advise going to check it out before it finishes up on April 21, or catch it at a tour stop near you. X3 Productions, the company behind the Indiana Jones exhibition (as well as Star Wars Identities), has let me know that there are more exhibition stops coming, and to watch for an announcement very soon. I’m a big fan of the Indy films, and a lover of archaeology, history and anthropology (and thus museums as well), so this was a trip I had been eager to organize and take. Here’s what the Indy exhibit had to offer:

“It belongs in a museum!” – Indiana Jones
“So do you!” – Man in the Panama Hat

The Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibition uses the four Indy films as a starting point to explore real world archaeological science. Each movie is represented by several display cases filled with props, artwork, and costumes, along with video displays showing film clips. In side rooms off of each film are rooms relating to an aspect of archaeology: The Quest for Treasure, Dig into the Past, Investigate, Solve the Mystery. These rooms contain real world artifacts from all over the world (from the Penn Museum), as well as historical documents and photographs (from the National Geographic Society) highlighting important discoveries and expeditions. Adding to the main exhibition is a display of local archaeological artifacts, in this case, some items from Mission San Juan Capistrano, and an activity zone for children (which had some fun things for grown-ups too!). The Discovery Science Center also added on a series of activity weekends with crafts and challenges around the museum for their “Race Around the Globe” adventure program. Unless noted otherwise, all remaining links in this article are to my photographs on flickr from the trip (of which there are a ton more in the album).

Starting our expedition in the exhibition:

Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology handheld guideThe exhibition is augmented through the use of a personal handheld device. More than just an audio guided tour, it also plays videos, and uses near-field communication (similar to RFID) for an interactive artifact hunt game within the exhibition. In addition to playing the audio tracks for the video clips being displayed on monitors in each section, and audio tracks related to nearly every item on display, there were making-of video clips, and short videos connecting something from the world of Indiana Jones to real world history and archaeology. For instance, check out this clip connecting the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Last Crusade to the Knights Templar on the Exhibition’s website. The Treasure Hunt game involved finding nine sensor stations around the exhibit, and, after tapping the handheld to the station, you had to solve a puzzle on the screen, or find the right location in the room and tap the handheld to a particular design or symbol on the wall.

Indiana Jones costume - Indiana Jones and the Adventure of ArchaeologyThe exhibit starts off with an audio welcome from Harrison Ford, an introduction on how to play the Treasure Hunt artifact finding game, and of course, the first display is the iconic costume of Indiana Jones, with the leather jacket, whip and the hat, as from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Also on display is a concept art piece by comic book legend Jim Steranko.

The exhibition carefully separates fiction from fact. The Indy Trail, focusing on the movies, is based off of the Warehouse 51 motif – each section of display is like a set of crates stacked in the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the boxes containing costumes, props, artwork, video displays and interpretive signage. The Archaeological Zones were side rooms, laid out with their own unique designs, containing real world artifacts and historical documents and images, and videos of modern archaeological work.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – The Quest for Treasure

The Indy Path had three displays:

The Quest for Treasure room takes the concept of searching for treasure and how archaeology has drifted from looking for items of monetary value to the knowledge value of discovery, with gold artifacts from Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the ancient city of Ur in the 1920s, to golden artifacts and systematic dig techniques found in modern fieldwork in Sitio Conte, Panama. Also used to explore the concept of value are ancient coins and jewelry and cuneiform tablets, including one of the oldest maps known to exist.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Dig into the Past

Indy’s adventures with Willie Scott and Short Round in Shanghai and India are the focus of three display cases, filled with concept art as well as some post-production art:

The Dig into the Past room looked at some key parts of fieldwork and expeditions: photography and documentation, with the original photograph album of Hiram Bingham, who made public the existence of Machu Picchu, and the photographs from the Matthew Stirling expedition that publicized the Olmec giant heads. Showing the role of stratigraphy to help determine the age of artifacts are samples of pottery from Tepe Hissar, Iran, while a video about modern technologies like aerial reconnaissance helped map the ancient irrigation networks around Angkor Wat, Cambodia, which was the most populous city in the world at its height, while 3-D modeling allows the reconstruction of ruins without having to physically move them. This room was themed as a dig site, with layers of dirt as the walls – and hidden artifacts in those layers being items to find as part of a Treasure Hunt puzzle!

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Investigate
On the Indy Trail, we had only two displays:

The Adventure Zone for Investigate focuses on decrypting and analyzing artifacts. One wall focused on how Tatiana Proskouriakoff helped crack the code of Mayan pictographs, and had her letter documenting her Aha! moment, and the role of earlier archaeological artists in meticulously recoding Mayan pictographs in pencil sketches so that later scholars could use them to help in decryption. Also in this room were samples of Egyptian hieroglyphics on papryus, and Meriotic writing, still untranslated. And several artifacts to showcase how archaeometry (using different sciences to analyze archaeological materials) to determine not only the age of artifacts but also purpose and use (identifying chemical traces from a pot shard to determine that the vessel was proof of intentional wine fermentation, etc.)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Solve the Mystery

On the movie side of things, Crystal Skull had the most (and also largest) items on display in three cases, including four costumes:

With the focus of the fourth movie on things even Indy couldn’t explain, the corresponding Archaeology Zone, Solve the Mystery, focused on the Nazca Lines, and showed Nasca pottery and videos and photos of the mysterious geoglyphs.

Local Archaeology & Kids Interactive Zone

The final stop (which spilled out of the main exhibition space) was on local archaeology, and in this case, focused on artifacts associated with the Mission San Juan Capistrano, located not too far away. They had few building pieces (that fell off in the 1812 earthquake), some religious items, and items found in trash pits or lost in the dirt.

At this point was a final Treasure Hunt checkpoint where your handheld would download your progress to a series of projector screens that would show your name and your completed (or incomplete) artifact being added to the collection. After this was the handheld return station, a fun photo backdrop, and the entrance to the interactive zone.

Idol Swap - Indiana Jones and the Adventure of ArchaeologyThe kids zone had several activities for a wide range of ages. They had a self-pulley station, a mock dig site full of sand and stones, and a station where you could pretend to swap the idol with weighted bags – to see if you could estimate the weight of the idol, and a station with lasers and mirrors to use the Staff of Ra to illuminate the location of the Well of Souls. They also had a greenscreen set up with a video display to see movie magic of live greenscreening against video backdrops.

And the gift shop, with a decent selection of exhibition-specific merchandise as well as some general Indy gear.


I really enjoyed the exhibition, and I think that X3 and the Discovery Science Center did a fantastic job of producing the materials and look and feel of the whole thing. But I felt that it might have been limited by the amount of space at the center – I know that when the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit came through here, it did not have as much stuff as it did in its Los Angeles tour stop. I figured that probably there was at least one display missing from Last Crusade – I felt that the Cross of Coronado from the Utah prologue probably should have been worthy of its own display setting, and Last Crusade only had two displays (and just one costume) to the three display sections for each other film. So I started poking around online at pictures of the previous exhibition locations (Montreal, Canada and Valencia, Spain) and discovered that there were several Indy Trail displays that didn’t make the cut to fit in Santa Ana:

  • Raiders: Tanis Dig Site – with a full size sarcophagus from the Well of Souls and concept art. The sarcophagus is big, but not iconic, so I could see why this display would get the cut for space.
  • Last Crusade: Utah – yup, it’s the Cross of Coronado, as well as young Indy’s Scout hat, Eagle Scout award, and circus train whip, as well as his father’s glasses, watch, pen, and the illuminated manuscript he was copying from in the prologue. Really bummed that this one didn’t appear.
  • Crystal Skull: Chauchilla Cemetery – Props displayed here include the gilded funerary mask of Orellana, the conquistador, and his full burial shroud and remains (along with the knife used to cut it open). The mask might have been cool, but the remains look to be even bigger than the motorcycle or throne props.

The museum used a timed entrance ticketing system to maintain an even flow and prevent overcrowding. The space around some of the Indy Trail areas was a little tight when there was a crowd, especially when people were watching the videos, while the space inside the Adventure Zone rooms was adequate. Because space was tight, there were some benches in some areas, but other areas (especially near video monitors) could have used some.

The Indiana Jones displays (and the audio and video material) really try to focus on the aspects of archaeology and history, and downplay certain aspects of the plots for a family audience. There’s no focus on weapons, and almost no mention of Nazis (and definitely no props relating to either), and the religious significance of items such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail is not really brought up, though the real world connections of the Sankara Stones to Shivalinga and the Hindu philosopher Sankara is mentioned, as well as a historical context for Thuggee cults and trophy heads kept by Nasca culture.

In the real world archaeology, they did a good job of portraying what modern archaeology does, with different roles in the field, and the diverse cast of people at the forefront of the science from the early twentieth century to today. With some of the real world artifacts, it would have been cool to be able to see them from multiple sides. With the Ur treasures, mirrored surfaces showed the artistry of the underside of some objects – and yet when the audio track for a Greek wine vessel mentioned the exterior artwork, there was no way to view the sides of the vessel, only the interior from the top-down view.

The interactive game made the exhibition more fun especially for kids who might not have the patience of their adult companions to listen to every single audio track. High marks for the handheld system as the primary guide, though sometimes I had trouble choosing whether to watch the video it showed over staring at the item on display.

Layout was a little tough – the side rooms, while created little pocket dead ends with their single entrance points, and it left an odd shape for the Indy Trail to flow, if one wanted to put the display cases in movie order. For instance, everyone encounters the underground temple of Doom display before the Shanghai display when reaching the Temple of Doom area, while the Pankot display is around a wall from the rest.

For Star Wars museum exhibits, I like to get the exhibition’s official companion book (the one for Where Science Meets Imagination is stuffed with tons of cool information about all the topics that exhibition covers), so I was disappointed to learn that they did not have a companion book for this show. I contacted X3 Productions, and they said that they had planned to make a book, but it was delayed by external issues, but they hoped to finish it.

Overall, this was a great exhibition, and if it visits another city that I end up in, I may take it in again, especially if it was in a larger space to accommodate all the displays. Like Marcus Brody, I may end up lost in a museum.

6 Replies to “Visiting the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology museum exhibition”

  1. Man. I hope this ends up somewhere near me. This sounds AWESOME!

    (I SO want to try to guess the weight of the idol.)

  2. I saw the exhibit too (and the Star Wars one when it was there). I usually avoid that place because of all the kids, but the special exhibits they have are really good and this one was lots of fun.

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