Have you ever seen a movie and realized it is set in a museum you’ve visited before? This happens to me more often than you might think. There is a collection of famous museums around the world that are instantly recognizable and movie makers use this to their advantage to represent a culture, period, or even mood. Whether characters are inside a museum and examining its art, or walking by a historical property, the museums represented in these films tell us everything we need to know about the setting.
From adventurous stories to romantic comedies, many genres across various periods show the museums of our world on the screen even if you can’t visit them in person. As a result, here are some movies set in museums that showcase famous art and culture as a part of the movie’s message.
15. Mad City, Prime Video (1997)
Starring John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, and Blythe Danner, Mad City is a thriller that takes place in the Museum of Natural History. As a result of losing his job and feeling completely lost in life, Sam (John Travolta) takes matters into his own, desperate hands. He holds the entire museum hostage while armed including groups of children who are there for a field trip.
Both Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner) try to stop him, but he cannot be reasoned with. Ultimately, Brackett uses the opportunity as an up-and-coming journalist to report on what is going on and spread the news story all over the country. This suspenseful story uses the Museum of Natural History as a historical backdrop to contrast the present-day troubles and feelings of insignificance that Sam is feeling. It’s a vast space that makes the hostage crises feel more intense.
14. House of Wax, Prime Video (2005)
House of Wax is the 2005 remake of the original horror movie from 1953. It stars several famous young 2000s actors including Chad Michael Murray, Jared Padalecki, and Paris Hilton. As the first story taught us, when a wax museum burns down, the wax will not melt away a murderer.
A group of six friends accept a ride to a town called Ambrose after having car trouble. They see a sign for the House of Wax and decide to stop by. However, soon, they notice that most people in town are made of wax and eerily silent. The wax museum setting represents being frozen in time. As a result, it sparks fear in the eyes of the characters and the audience. In the end, will they escape the murderers or end up as wax figures themselves?
13. The Goldfinch, Prime Video (2019)
This story begins after the Metropolitan Museum of Art is bombed by terrorists. A mother is there with her young son but doesn’t survive the attack. During the aftermath, her son, Theo, steals “The Goldfinch” painting and escapes. Due to its extreme value, he has to carry the burden of such a large secret throughout the rest of his life.
The movie goes back and forth between Theo’s current, adult life and his past life around the time of the attack. All of his relationships are significantly impacted by that day in the MET. As a result, the setting becomes associated with his trauma and the painting is the only thing that remains, making it a symbol of beauty and yet horror at the same time. We recommend a watch of The Goldfinch as it also includes a star-studded cast of Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, and Sarah Paulson, to name a few.
12. Museo, Prime Video (2018)
Museo is a Hispanic film based on the largest heist in Mexico’s history. This monumental crime stole several artifacts and historical objects of significance from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Two criminals led the operation on Christmas day: Juan Núñez and Benjamin Wilson.
The film captures the events leading up to the heist, the heist itself, and the cultural impact it had on the country afterward. The criminals escape and spend their days running from the law, making this crime drama suspenseful and complicated. Ultimately, this movie reinforces that nations see immense pride in their art and history, which cannot be stripped away by the monetary value alone.
11. The Thomas Crown Affair, Max (1999)
A multi-millionaire, Thomas Crown, can’t get enough satisfaction from his legal success. He finds a thrill in stealing valuable artwork from museums in The Thomas Crown Affair. The movie escalates as he steals a Monet painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art thinking that he can escape again. However, an investigator, Catherine Banning, is onto him and works with the police to track down his crime.
Somehow the two seem to hit it off during their various encounters and slip into a hot and heavy relationship. The museums shown in the background of this film represent the order and respect that is expected in such an environment. In contrast, the seductive relationship between Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo takes place outside of those walls. Check out the nerve-wracking crime and forbidden romance that makes this one of my favorite movies set in museums.
10. Funny Face, Paramount Plus (1957)
In the world of fashion during the 1950s, it was unusual to see any unique faces on the cover of a magazine. However, when Dick Avery (played by Fred Astaire) discovers Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) in a bookstore, he sees something magical in her beauty.
Soon after, Jo is named the “Quality Woman” representing the famous Quality Magazine as an international model. She spends most of her time as a model in Paris, which places her among incredible architecture and history. One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Jo does a photo shoot at the Louvre Museum. As seen in the image above, Hepburn descends these famous Louvre stairs in a stunning red dress. She contrasts and transcends the art in the museum, which promotes a positive message of self-love since Hepburn is not the typical model of that period.
9. The Relic, Prime Video (1997)
The Relic is an intense sci-fi horror film that takes place in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. What makes The Relic such a fascinating watch is the lizard-like creature that is killing many humans in its path. Coming from South America, the creature has both insect and reptilian DNA. Luckily, scientists at the Field Museum can investigate the evidence and conclude that this creature is unheard of and dangerous. A detective, Vincent, must work with the scientists to stop the murders before a gala attracts more victims.
There are tons of shots representing the Field Museum in real life as the characters try to hunt down the creature. Similar to other thriller films on this list, the museum setting feels intentional because it instills fear based on its expansive size. Also, as the characters are surrounded by history and evolution, they are still ill-equipped to handle a monster.
8. Manhattan, Tubi (1979)
Not only did Woody Allen direct Manhattan, but he also starred in it alongside Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep, making it a true classic from the late 70s. Isaac (Woody Allen) is a recently divorced writer with a good sense of humor, an intense love of Manhattan, and even more intense romantic problems. He is dating a teenager when he begins to develop feelings for his best friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton) and also finds out that his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is writing a tell-all about their relationship. This movie is so much more than a romantic comedy as it delves into serious topics and represents New York City culture from the 1970s.
In fact, this movie was filmed in several distinct locations in Manhattan to capture the atmosphere of Isaac’s life. What is Manhattan without its incredible access to museums and cultural experiences? As a result, you can see various museums featured in Manhattan including the Guggenheim, Museum of Natural History, MoMA, and the Hayden Planetarium. As seen in the photo above, one of the most famous shots from the film was taken at the MoMA while Isaac squires Mary around town. The museums serve as a reminder of the beauty of Manhattan even though it seems that Isaac’s life there is in complete disarray.
7. Band of Outsiders, Apple TV (1964)
Next up, a French film, Band of Outsiders (also known as Bande à Part in French) gives us an edgy perspective on modern gangsters. Two troublemakers and best friends, Franz and Arthur, meet Odile who is an endearing and beautiful classmate. In a desperate desire to find a thrill and get rich easily, the trio devise a plan to rob Odile’s uncle who has cash hidden in his unguarded home.
This movie is unique because it zooms in on French culture and specifically, the whimsy of dance, art, and romance languages. However, at the same time, the quirky characters and their nonchalant attitude toward crime leave you feeling uneasy. The trio likes to disrupt order and a notable scene where this happens is inside the Louvre Museum in Paris. For example, as they race each other throughout the museum dodging security guards and ignoring the art, they try to prove that they can get away with their plot, regardless of the environment around them.
6. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Paramount Plus (1986)
We all know the classic 80s comedy, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and it also happens to be one of my favorite movies set in museums. When Ferris calls out of school (yet again), he wants to explore Chicago with his girlfriend, Sloane, and best friend, Cameron. Against all odds, they are determined to have an adventure by tricking their Principal and skating by rules in the most hilarious ways.
This movie shows many parts of Chicago, but one of the most memorable scenes (pictured above) takes place at the Art Institute of Chicago. The trio enters the museum via its iconic exterior steps and they admire more than 20 paintings. It wouldn’t be a John Hughes flick if a cultural moment was completely serious, so they kiss, make funny faces, and keep it lighthearted. While these friends might not be in the museum for long, you get the sense that they appreciate the beauty that surrounds their home city. In fact, the museum has a special Ferris Bueller tour so that fans can experience the same scene.
5. When Harry Met Sally, Hulu (1989)
A romantic comedy that shows the most incredible views from the MET museum is When Harry Met Sally. In this fan favorite, two friends test how far they can take their romance without ruining their friendship. They can’t seem to stand each other in the beginning, but over time, their friendship grows and they even try to set each other up with potential partners. They never dreamed of dating each other, but one day something clicked.
This movie is full of complex emotions, silliness, and evolving point-of-views, which makes a historical backdrop like the Metropolitan Museum of Art the perfect choice. In their famous MET scene, Sally and Harry joke around until Sally admits that she has a date with someone else later that evening. You can instantly sense the tension and slight disappointment. They begin to recognize the significance of what surrounds them including both the artifacts at the museum and their true best friend.
4. How to Steal a Million, Prime Video (1966)
How to Steal a Million is a lesser-known Audrey Hepburn movie, but its unique plot and suspenseful premise place it as number four on our list of the top movies set in museums. Hepburn plays Nicole Bonnet who is a loving and loyal daughter even though her father is an art forger, making millions off of fake masterpieces. He continues to get away with his scheme until the Kléber-Lafayette Museum plans to authenticate his latest find.
In an effort to protect him, Nicole devises a plan along with a known burglar to break into the museum and steal back the statue. This movie shows the behind-the-scenes perspective of how art is curated, acquired, and protected. While the museum mentioned in the movie is not real, How to Steal a Million was filmed in the courtyard of the Musée Carnavalet in France, so it stays true to the French museum scenery. Like many other movies set in museums, this story shows the immense value placed on historical art pieces that cannot be forged.
3. Men in Black, Hulu (1997)
Men in Black finds a way to represent a dangerous and covert alien hunt while still being lighthearted and humorous. Starring Tommy Lee and Will Smith, the plot begins as the secret MIB agency recruits special agents to protect Earth from alien life. Jay (Will Smith) comes face-to-face with dangerous and obscure creatures but must save New York City from alien threats and keep their mission a secret.
Not only does this first MIB movie show several New York landmarks, but its most memorable scene features the Guggenheim Museum. This museum is known for its circular shape and spiral walkway, which makes it the perfect, confusing backdrop for an alien chase. As they run in circles trying to catch this unknown creature, the scene directly contrasts art and science, so you can’t help but see the irony of an alien hiding among paintings and sculptures.
2. The Da Vinci Code, Tubi (2006)
The Da Vinci Code is based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name and its suspenseful, clever plot cannot be ignored as one of the best movies set in museums. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a symbologist who must use clues left at a murder scene inside the Louvre museum to discover who is responsible for disrupting such a historical and peaceful setting. Along the way, he works with a woman named Sophie to find out some dark truths about the origins of Christianity and secret Catholic societies that may be involved.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings are used as clues to chase down the murderer, so you can catch many glimpses of his paintings inside the Louvre throughout the movie. The Da Vinci Code truly captures the historical significance of art, religion, and culture, especially in France, along with how it has impacted the way we see Christianity today.
1. Night at the Museum Trilogy, Disney Plus (2006-2014)
Night at the Museum has three movies in the original trilogy all available on Disney Plus. There was a fourth movie in the franchise, but since it is animated, we’re excluding it from our round-up of movies set in museums.
All three original Night at the Museum movies are set in different museums, but the premise is always the same; Larry Daley works at a museum on the night shift when he shockingly sees people from an exhibit come to life. He then has to find out why they are suddenly alive, which always begins an adventure inside the museum. In every scenario, their miraculous ability to come to life has to do with the background of another artifact or historical figure in the museum. Larry steps in to become the hero and protect the museum along with the history inside.
Even though Ben Stiller adds humor to the storylines, these movies do share factual and interesting information about history. The first movie takes place in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the second takes us to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and lastly, the third Night at the Museum movie is set at London’s British Museum. Each movie in the trilogy used exterior shots of their relative museum locations, so it captures the accuracy of each journey for Larry and his museum friends. The interior shots were largely manipulated to factor in the CGI necessary to tell this adventurous museum story.
Nonetheless, this trilogy captures the significance and tangible energy associated with museum exhibits. The history comes to life, which is exactly the goal of every museum in the world.