That belongs in a museum!

In a confluence of movie magic, archaeological research and technological innovation that has been way too long in coming, Lucasfilm, the Penn Museum and the National Geographic Society have created a new travelling exhibit that showcases both the fictional wonderland of Indiana Jones and the factual reality of how archaeology is practiced.

Since the first thing they tell you in any archaeology class is “DON’T DO THIS IF YOU WANT TO BE LIKE INDIANA JONES,” and yet, Indiana Jones has ignited a passion for archaeology in the breast of many a young dreamer, it seems only fair that a museum exhibit be put together that offers both the irresistible allure of the great adventurer and corrects the many misconceptions about archaeology (not to mention actual crimes like theft and destruction of ancient sites) that Indy’s adventures have promoted.

Enter Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology. It puts on display a huge collection of props, models and art from the Lucasfilm Indiana Jones archives, along with the real deal: ancient artifacts from the Penn Museum and National Geographic Society archives. All visitors will receive handheld multimedia guides, an interactive tool that will allow visitors to customize their experience according to their interests. There’s also a quest game element that will give children both in age and at heart the chance to explore the exhibit as if they were Indiana Joneses themselves.

The exhibit is divided into four sections. The first, Quest for Treasure, displays some of the shiny things Indiana Jones has discovered at risk to life and limb, like the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol who is not deceived by any bags of sand you might try to put in his place, next to the shiny things real archaeologists have discovered with trowels and little tiny brushes, like an embossed gold plaque from Panama dating to 500-900 A.D. (courtesy the Penn Museum).

The guide explains how the film’s designers used different archaeological inspirations to create the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra, and while making it very clear that there is no genuine artifact that combines Phoenician script, a menorah-looking thing, and Ra’s falcon symbol, it points out the similarity between the Headpiece’s ultimate look and a pair of elaborate earrings found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Archaeologist Michel Fortin then explains that to archaeologists, “treasure” doesn’t mean precious metals and gemstones, but is instead defined by the historical significance of a piece, how much information it can give us about the past.

The next section, Dig into the Past, explores the importance of context for an object. Since Indy plays more than a little fast and loose with archaeological context (he’s basically a looter), this part focuses on his understanding of the history of the pieces he’s looking for, and Michel Fortin explains that importance of placing an artifact in its proper archaeological context. You learn something very different from a piece that you find in a home versus one you find in a temple, for example. The Lucasfilm collection in this section includes the Sankara stones, while the genuine archaeological artifacts come from Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Tepe Hissar, among other places.

The third section is called Investigate, and it covers how Indy and real archaeologists put together many small clues to come to an understanding of a discovery. Protip: X never, ever marks the spot. (Unless it does.) Fortin explains that the bulk of investigation work doesn’t happen following trails to the Holy Grail, but rather once researchers bring artifacts they’ve found on an archaeological site back to the lab. There chemical analysis fills in blanks — dates, materials, etc. — and other elements, like inscriptions and designs, are explored in detail, translated, interpreted.

In the last section, Solve the Mystery, Indiana unravels the mystery of the crystal skull and archaeologists explain that the very definition of their discipline is to discover facts about our past by interpreting the material remains the ancients have left behind. Through artifacts archaeologists explain the unexplained.

The exhibit opens at the Montreal Science Centre on April 28th and continues there through September 18, 2011. More sites will be added to the schedule soon. Keep an eye on this page to find out when it will be coming somewhere near you.