It took them 92 years to open a movie museum in LA. Was it worth the wait?

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is finally set to open this week, after almost a century in the works. Kevin E G Perry heads inside to see what its vast collection of stories and artefacts says about the history of film

Monday 27 September 2021 06:31
<p>Artefacts of cinema, from such films as ‘ET’ and ‘Star Wars’ are displayed inside the Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures</p>

Artefacts of cinema, from such films as ‘ET’ and ‘Star Wars’ are displayed inside the Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures

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After creating the Oscars in 1929, the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved on to the next item on their agenda: the construction of a purpose-built museum dedicated to movies in their home town of Los Angeles. It seemed like a natural next step. While the Academy Awards honour achievements in filmmaking each year, a permanent museum would preserve and pay tribute to those throughout history.

Still, any jaded screenwriter in Hollywood will tell you that a good idea alone isn’t enough to get a project off the ground. After decades of infighting, delays and false starts, the Academy announced in 2012 that a suitable site had been found and the museum would be open by 2017. But that date came and went, with reports of further delays and spiralling costs appearing beneath increasingly concerned headlines, such as the one fromVanity Fair in 2019, which forlornly asked: “Will the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures ever actually open?”

It took a couple more years, not helped by the outbreak of a pandemic, but now, yes, the Academy Museum will finally open its doors this week. After almost a century of prologue, the pressure is on to deliver an experience that lives up to its own billing. “There are other cities with film museums,” observed Tom Hanks, who helped spearhead fundraising for the project, in a speech to the assembled world press at a preview event last week. “But with all due respect, in a place like Los Angeles, and created by the Motion Picture Academy, this museum has really got to be the Parthenon of such places.”

He’s right, of course, but the problem the museum’s curators have faced is pinning down exactly what that Parthenon should look like and which stories would get to be told there. Filling the museum with props and artefacts was never going to be a problem, given the Academy’s extensive world-class archives, but clearly they had ambitions for the project beyond simply building the world’s most expensive Planet Hollywood.

In recent years, the Academy had begun to hope that the museum might be able to help further the debate around inclusivity sparked by campaigns such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite, the latter of which began in 2015 when none of the 20 acting nominees were actors of colour. Those lofty ideals left curators with the unenviable task of building from scratch a museum that celebrates the legacy of the Oscars, while acknowledging and addressing the inequalities that the awards themselves have helped perpetuate.

Impressively, the Academy Museum meets that challenge head-on. It does so by essentially throwing out the notion of a canon of great films in favour of presenting multiple voices, and hinting at the panoply of perspectives that make up the true history of film. The core exhibition, which stretches over three floors, is tellingly titled Stories of Cinema, in the plural. Introductory gallery, Significant Movies and Moviemakers, begins, as you’d expect, with a consideration of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane from 1941, featuring the sole remaining prop Rosebud sled, but then awards equal space to Patricia Cardoso’s 2002 independent drama Real Women Have Curves, which tells the story of a Mexican-American family in east LA. The film was entirely ignored by the Oscars at the time.

The same gallery goes on to highlight the work of four people with very different talents and biographies, who have each had an outsized impact on cinema: martial arts legend Bruce Lee, longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Children of Men cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and African-American silent film director Oscar Micheaux. The lesson the gallery teaches is one that recurs again and again throughout the museum: that the history of film was not dictated by a handful of big-name individual auteurs, but rather woven by multitudinous artists each contributing their varied but complementary skills.

The museum delivers plenty of big-hitting props and artefacts, including the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

Given that approach, it’s important that the galleries dedicated to the Oscars themselves incorporate criticisms of the awards and acknowledge past failures. Thus a circular gold-walled display room featuring 20 notable Oscar statuettes dating from 1927 to 2016 also leaves an empty display for Hattie McDaniel, who received a plaque in 1939 when she won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, which has since gone missing. The panel beneath the vacant case notes that after McDaniel’s victory, “it would be fifty years before another Black actress won”.

While in general, the exhibits are careful to draw on voices beyond the most obvious reference points, the museum still does the job of delivering plenty of big-hitting props and artefacts. Most prominent early on are the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the centrepiece of a fascinating deep-dive into the 1939 classic, while a gallery dedicated to the art of costume design is densely packed with a variety of treasures ranging from the matching red dresses worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the voluminous “May Queen” dress Florence Pugh wore in Midsommar, right through to the shabby bathrobe worn by Jeff Bridges when he first ambled into cinematic history as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. An upstairs sci-fi gallery, meanwhile, features crowd-pleasing appearances from the likes of ET, R2D2, C3PO and Edward Scissorhands. Outside above the escalators hangs Bruce, the sole surviving 25ft fibreglass mechanical shark from Jaws, who is always ready for his closeup.

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The ‘May Queen’ dress worn by Florence Pugh in Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film ‘Midsommar’

If that lot isn’t enough to get the museum all up in your social media feeds, there’s also The Oscars Experience. There, for an extra $15 (£11) – on top of the $25 (£18) entrance fee – you get to stand on a fake stage in front of a pre-recorded audience and pick up a genuine, eight-and-a-half-pound Oscar statuette. You’ll then be emailed a 14-second video clip and encouraged to “share the moment with your friends and family on social media”.

The Oscars Experience may be a little silly, but it’s sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces (especially because they’ll be allowed to take their masks off for it). Its inclusion feels like an acknowledgement that the museum has to function as much as a family friendly tourist attraction as it does a learned institution dedicated to advancing society’s understanding of the art and science of movie-making. But what’s impressive about the Academy Museum is that it manages to do both. There really does seem to be something for everyone, even an old hand like Tom Hanks himself. The actor singled out his personal highlight: a gallery dedicated to the pre-cinematic history of optical toys and devices, which moves from simple shadow puppets to the peep shows, zoetropes and magic lanterns that once offered audiences a rare glimpse of far-off lands.

Tom Hanks says the museum ‘looks to me like it’s the world’s largest magic lantern’

The lanterns, Hanks said, reminded him of the 300,000-square-foot Academy Museum itself, which was designed by architect Renzo Piano. The building has already earned the nickname “the Death Star” thanks to the eye-catching glass-and-concrete sphere that contains the museum’s 1,000-seat Geffen Theatre. At last week’s preview event, Piano – who also designed London’s Shard – pleaded with journalists not to call it by that name. He insisted his inspiration for the sphere had been a soap bubble, but Hanks had another interpretation. “Yes, it’s a soap bubble,” he said. “But it looks to me like it’s the world’s largest magic lantern, that will transport us to amazing places simply by getting together with a couple of strangers and walking into a dark room.” Someone’s angling for another Oscar.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles opens on 30 September

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