The Goonies, Museum Rejects

The Goonies is 35 years old this summer, and everything about it — the Cyndi Lauper soundtrack, a class-inflected love triangle, Rube Goldberg machines, thickly drawn ethnic stereotypes, a dehumanized, but transformative and vital character, and a happy ending — feels deeply 80s. But this story about working-class kids who save their beloved neighborhood from becoming a country club, by beating murderous counterfeiters and finding a pirate’s treasure also offers a still-resonant message about the nature of the material constraints we live with every day.  

I missed Goonies as a child, and maybe that’s why, when I finally saw it, I felt it open a window on to a kind of alternative material culture theory, one that sets things in motion in unexpected ways. It offered a way for me to think about material things that emphasized their frictions, cause-and-effect qualities, and heaviness—the weighty import of old things. 

The Goonies is a story about ways of moving in the world: about those who move under the weight of things, and those who flit above most material concerns. It is not quite an economic story about commodities and money. Rather, the friction-filled world of the Goon Docks suggests an unexpected kind of class-based materialism rooted in things—things that we learn were rejected by a local museum. 

The kids who live in the Goon Docks in Astoria, Oregon—the Goonies—are in immediate danger of losing their homes. The film opens with the very 1980s feeling that unseen financial instruments and the smooth-talking men in suits are going to offset the material, grounded world of the Goonies.  It seems that the homes of the Goonies and their families won’t even be speed bumps for the new country club and its white-collar power. But that is not what happens. 

The Goonies live in a very real and concrete world full of effort and direct and observable causes and effects.  Chunk is overweight because he can’t stop eating. Mouth never stops talking, filled with anxiety, and trying to control the situations he is in. Mikey Walsh has asthma and struggles to breathe. His older brother Brand Walsh is constantly working out, trying to make himself stronger with resistance bands.  Data, who lives across from the Walsh’s, has created the most concrete world of all, the direct and accessible cause and effect of elaborate inventions to control his environment. Data may be imagining a future as an engineer, but he is also creating a manageable present operated by observable (and controllable) material rules.  

Meanwhile, the snobby and entitled Troy and his friends float effortlessly above these immediate concerns. Their fathers control the landscape through financial instruments, run by unseen systems of power and pipes that produce the green lawns of the golf course and perfect country club showers. This difference is set in relief when Troy pulls his convertible alongside Brand, who is pedaling a child’s bicycle. Troy grabs his arm and speeds off as Brand furiously pedals on the tiny bike in an attempt to keep up, before being hurled into the forest while the car speeds on.  When Troy has the chance to lower a bucket (that iconic scene!) down a wishing well to lift his love interest, Andy, out of her Goonies adventure to the surface, he is offering her a way up and out of the physically dangerous world down below. These two different ways of moving in the world suggest competing ways of understanding material things. One knowledge system is ruled by Newton’s laws that present everything as always in motion or in stasis. The other works through the power of compound interest and financial tools, through paper and privilege. 

A cursory viewing of the Goonies might suggest that a magic connection to pirates, heroic bravery, and the simple notion that “Goonies never say die” saves the day. Sure, pirates are there, but really what saves the day is a series of items discarded by the local museum where Mikey and Brand’s suit-wearing dad Mr. Walsh is an assistant curator (or “assistant curly” as the boys call him). The museum barely appears in the film. It slips in as Mr. Walsh is seen lowering its flag as the boys bicycle past him. He saved those museum discards in his attic, and as the boys explore this off-limits space, the things that the museum didn’t want to become vital to their futures. Chunk puts a fine point on these “museum rejects,”  explaining, “They are kind of like us Mike, the Goonies.”

These museum rejects, the newspaper clippings, the map, and the gold doubloon lead them to One-Eyed Willy’s treasure. They may end up chased by the murderous, counterfeiting Fratelli family (that’s another story…) and the authorities fail them, but the childhood stories Mikey remembers from his father embedded in these objects save their family.  We know from The Poetics of Space that attics are the home of our imaginations. Gaston Bachelard reminds us that we learn to dream in our childhood attics. In that simple detail—the alternative museum quality of the Walsh’s attic, a place that activates dreams and possibility through things—we learn that their museum curator father did not have the financial ability to protect his family from monied interests. Yet, even when the museum had other priorities, he knew to hold on to things that mattered, and that unlocked a mystery that led to bigger possibilities. 

Do the old things in the attic suggest that the Goonies always belonged there, that they had access to their roots in Astoria if they just knew their own history? That is unclear. What it does suggest is that there are deeper material and archival truths that have the potential to right history gone wrong. Material evidence might create the friction needed to slow down Troy’s convertible and his father’s intangible financial instruments, giving weight to the Goonies’ claim to their community. 

In the end, it isn’t a lawyer’s trick, a check, or cash that saves the day. It is a marble bag full of jewels that Rosalita, who has been hired to help the Walsh family move, discovers. Rosalita didn’t speak English, and Mouth had tormented her early in the film with his malicious translations of Mrs. Walsh’s packing instructions. Her immediate understanding of the windfall turns the story.  The contents of a bag thought to contain marbles — the ideal toy to illuminate cause and effect, the image used to understand Newton’s laws — stop the pen from signing over the Walsh home to the bank. Good thing Rosalita was paying attention to the things in her hands. 

The Goonies, especially when Cyndi Lauper reminds us that the “Goonies ‘R‘ Good Enough”, feels like a populist claim in the face of speculation and abuses of financial power. But it is also a story of everyday things being good enough or better than expected, material things that matter and make their way in the world—both in and out of museums. 

When I think about objects in the museum collection I care for and the others I have worked in, I want to ask: what worlds do these things open up? What transformations can these make possible? The frictions objects exert and the space they take up aren’t always a bad thing. It is often why they matter and how they make an impact on the world around them.  

I think of the frictions in my life, too. Legos underfoot. Track changes. Heavy books. Grading. Laundry. Emails. Cardio. Recycling. Which frictions are about privilege, and which help me move in the world with weight and worry, using that friction to open the jar, to pay attention, to feel the potential in the things around me?  

Sarah Anne Carter runs the Center for Design and Material Culture at UW-Madison. She writes about museums and making sense of the world.