How ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Was Filmed at the Smithsonian
The blockbuster saw the superhero working as a museum anthropologist. But how accurate was its depiction of the Institution at the time?
Early on in Wonder Woman 1984, the titular superhero crouches on the floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The warrior woman in the guise of the unflappable Diana Prince picks up papers dropped by her colleague, the gawky geologist Barbara Minerva. The two represent the highest-octane representation of Smithsonian employees in years, but how closely do their lives and offices resemble what working at the Smithsonian was like 40 years ago? As one might suspect, not all that much.
WW84 was filmed at not one but three Smithsonian locations around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., so Smithsonian magazine delved into how the film crew orchestrated the tightly timed shoots, examined the backstory of what it was really like for women museum staff in the ’80s and whether any of the rocks and gems in the museum collections have anything approximate to the mystical powers of the film’s extraordinary crystal. Warning: light spoilers follow.
In the blockbuster released on Christmas Day, nearly seven decades have passed since Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, fought off the Greek god Ares and Imperial Germany during World War I. It’s 1984, the Amazon now lives in the Watergate apartment complex overlooking the Potomac River and holds a day job at the Smithsonian as a cultural anthropologist and archaeologist. Though they share an employer, Minerva, played by Kristen Wiig, is in many way’s Price’s foil: meek, weak and malleable. When Minerva is asked to inspect a piece of citrine with mystical wish-granting properties, the ensuing chaos devolves into civilization-threatening anarchy.
Director Patty Jenkins, who also co-wrote the script, visited Washington, D.C. often while growing up and spent her high school senior year in the area. “Each and every one of [the Smithsonian] museums has a huge place in my memory for being so grand and incredible,” she has said. In early 2017, the Wonder Woman 1984 team reached out to the Smithsonian—which hosted the crews of other big-name films, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the second Night at the Museum. After Smithsonian reviewed the script, detailed planning got underway.
In Wonder Woman 1984, viewers will catch glimpses of the National Museum of Natural History and the Space Race exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum, where rockets and astronaut paraphernalia wow WWI pilot Steve Trevor (back from the dead thanks to the wish-crystal). In the fun welcome-to-the-’80s sequence where Diana shows her boyfriend around D.C., he’s chuffed by the Metro, fanny packs and break-dancers performing in the Hirshhorn plaza. “It’s all art,” she explains, then adds, as he ponders a wastebin, “That’s just a trash can.”
Jenkins wrote in that scene and its laugh lines at the suggestion of production designer Aline Bonetto, her collaborator from the first Wonder Woman movie. Early on, Bonetto spent a few days in D.C. scouting out potential locations for filming, and the Hirshhorn’s architecture caught her eye as a “beautiful frame,” she says.
While authentic Smithsonian artifacts, like Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke sculpture and Henry, the historic 11-ton African bull elephant from the Natural History Museum’s rotunda, make appearances, no Smithsonian artifacts were used as props—WW1984’s Invisible Jet, a comic-book favorite, is not, sadly, in the Smithsonian collections.
Plans to film “Magic Hour” (the code name the crew used while in D.C. to keep shooting under wraps) started months in advance with a scouting trip to figure out where to position cameras and what modern-day features would need to be hidden. Production staff measured, designed and printed signage to cover up the museum placards that would have been out of place in the 1980s. (Signage at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, where other scenes were shot, remained in its 21st century iconography.)
“Working in a museum,” Bonetto says, “it’s always a really challenging thing,” because filming couldn’t interfere with visitor hours. The scenes at the National Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn were filmed in a day. Set up began right after closing one evening, the larger crew showed up at 6 in the morning, and then they filmed from around 7 a.m. until the museum’s doors opened at 10. From there, the moviemakers crossed the street to film outside the Hirshhorn. The scene at the Air and Space Museum is a time capsule in more ways than one: The galleries are undergoing a massive re-imagining, with exhibition space closing to the public on a rolling basis, a process distinct from ongoing Covid-19 procedures.
The National Museum of Natural History was also a single-day, before-opening-hours shoot. Bonetto says they added a fake wall to hide a security screening area, swapped out banners and and made sure to remove any tell-tale modern tech from the welcome desk. But, she adds, “It’s a place that is so beautiful; the adjustments you have to do are really small.”
While the adjustments to the actual museum spaces were minimal, the movie’s depiction of what it was like to be a woman working at a Smithsonian museum at the time involved a sprinkle of Hollywood movie idealism.
In Wonder Woman 1984, Minerva’s colleagues in the mineral sciences department come from a variety of racial backgrounds, and with at least three other women of color spotted in the background of the lab. The woman who hired Minerva, Carol, is African American. But in reality, says the Smithsonian’s institutional historian Pamela Henson, few women worked in the science fields at the time.
According to research Gloria Steinem did in 1979 while serving as a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank with close ties to the Smithsonian, women held only about one-third of middle-level jobs requiring college degrees, and in the higher echelons of the Institution—supervisory roles—that figure dwindled to 5 percent. The 1989 directory shows only one woman employed in the mineral sciences division (where Barbara works). And despite the formation of a diversity committee in the ’80s, “minority women were at the absolute bottom of the pay scale,” Henson says.
Before her wish makes her more like Prince (e.g. popular and self-assured), Minerva is ignored by her colleagues. The undermining of female employees is an experience that’s borne out historically. In the 1970s, a Smithsonian anthropologist sued for gender discrimination, and her argument that sexism had stymied her career won in court. She went on to sue for reprisals like negative performance reviews and won those cases, too. Henson—who herself started at the Smithsonian in 1973—says that hostile work environments were not universal, noting that her own boss went to bat to aid in her career advancement. By the time Prince and Minerva would have joined the Smithsonian ranks, changes were well underway, thanks to the Women’s Council and senior leadership who were focused on workplace diversity.
Being part of a vanguard of equality-minded women in the workplace is in line with the feminist origins of the Wonder Woman character, whom psychologist William Moulton Marston created in 1941 as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman.” As “the most successful and longest lasting woman in the genre,” explains Eric Jentsch, an entertainment and sports curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Wonder Woman “has made a tremendous impact, and is widely acknowledged as providing an inspirational message of strength and empowerment.”
The movie’s portrayal of Barbara’s gemology job merits a reality check too, according to Smithsonian mineralogist Jeffrey Post.
First of all, he says, “We would not accept objects with some kind of provenance that can’t be verified” like the mysterious wish-crystal, which winds up at the museum shortly after Wonder Woman busts an antiquities ring. (Minerva identifies it as citrine, but Post clarifies that technically speaking, it’s a citrine-colored quartz, not a cut gem.) The scenes that show Minerva tracing the magical artifact’s path through history and logging late nights at the office, however, have a slightly larger basis in reality. While the movie’s correct that curators do give donor tours and occasionally attend galas related to their exhibitions, allowing donor (and megalomaniac) Maxwell Lord to “borrow” the wish-crystal from her office got an immediate “No way” from Post.
“I’m not sure I’d even let [a donor] touch [an artifact,] to be honest with you,” he says.
Does the Smithsonian have any ancient minerals with wish-granting properties stored away? “Not that I’m aware of,” Post answers. There are, however, gems with lengthy histories dating back to the 1500s, and rumors of a curse have swirled around the Hope Diamond since the 1900s, when the last individual to own it, Evalyn Walsh McLean, suffered the tragic loss of a nine-year-old son, drug overdose of a daughter and her husband’s death in a psychiatric hospital. (Such legends are “purely fanciful,” Post assures me.)
The gemstones in the Smithsonian’s glass display cases won’t magically fulfill your heart’s every desire, Post says, but it made sense to the filmmakers to chose something shiny and alluring as the movie’s powerful object.
“Early on, because they were different and special, they were associated with power and wealth and someone who was special”—just like Barbara Minerva yearns to be. “There’s a sense of awe that does affect us,” Post reflects. “I’m not going to say it’s magic, but awe on its own is sort of a special thing.”
While the Smithsonian museums are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and you can’t visit the sites where Wonder Woman 1984 was filmed in person as of this piece’s January publication, the Smithsonian and Microsoft have created two educational activities inspired by the movie, “Code the Chaos Maze” and “Decode a Secret Message.”