A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The Man in the Yellow Hat up is up to no good in the new film.
On a recent Saturday night, I took my four-year-old daughter to see the new film "Curious George." She thoroughly enjoyed it. It is indeed fun and very cute, but nevertheless, I left the theater in a quandary.
The main story line of this film involves The Man in the Yellow Hat, here known as Ted, who must save the New York museum where he works from becoming a parking lot. The museum's tired displays no longer interest contemporary children, and poor attendance is causing an economic crisis.
So Ted sets out on a ship to Africa with the intention of finding the "Lost Shrine of Zagawa" and bringing back its 40-foot ape-idol for a new museum display. After several misadventures, he succeeds. The museum's crisis is solved as families flock to its doors to see this new "wonder of the world." Ted finds fame and gets the girl, as well as the monkey who follows him home.
My concern with this story line, in which The Man in the Yellow Hat is an archaeologist and museum curator (as opposed to the gun-toting, pipe-smoking animal poacher of the original book series by Margret and H.A. Rey), is the insidious underlying assumption that one simply can go to Africa and transport significant cultural artifacts to a museum in New York. Granted, this is fiction, but even so, it provides our children with a clear lesson in Western cultural hegemony, a lesson that contemporary American children definitely do not need.
In the film, there never is any doubt that the white American man has some kind of inherent right to take this African idol. The film also does a disservice by teaching nothing about the real science of archaeology, thereby perpetuating the romantic notion of the archaeologist as treasure-hunter.
This message seems especially troubling at a time when the international debate concerning cultural heritage has intensified with a focus on the aftermath of Nazi/World War II looting, the repatriation of classical treasures and Native American artifacts, and the looting in Iraq of the National Museum and archaeological sites during the conflict in the Middle East.
It is unfortunate that this film does not teach children more about the inherent value of cultural heritage as a receptacle of memory and an embodiment of cultural identity, which enables us to better understand ourselves and others and to appreciate human diversity--a key to maintaining peace between peoples in an increasingly interdependent global community.
For me, however, the supreme irony of this film is represented by George's otherwise delightful and carefree flight over the city, borne aloft by a colorful bouquet of balloons.
Of course, when George first flew over the city in the original 1941 book, the twin towers had not yet been built. But today, when I look at the skyline of New York, so often celebrated in this film, I can't help but think about what is missing, and I wonder about the reasons why.
Surely part of the answer has to do with the notion of Western cultural supremacy, a potentially tragic assumption of this film.