Film History Is Bunk, Says the Academy Museum
|Still from Citizen Kane, 1941|
It languished on RKO's Hollywood lot until it was thrown out and rescued by a studio watchman. It eventually entered the burgeoning movie collectables market. When auctioned at Sotheby's in 1982, it was pitched as the Holy Grail of film memorabilia. One bidder (oil tycoon Lucien Flourney) speculated it might go for a million dollars. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg agreed not to compete, letting Spielberg win the sled for a mere $55,000.
Spielberg kept "Rosebud" in his office until 2018, when he donated it to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures: "I think it really belongs in a museum so everybody can see it."
|wHY Architecture rendering of Citizen Kane installation. (c) Academy Museum Foundation/Image by wHY Architecture|
"There's not one history of film," Kramer told the L.A. Times,
"We wanted to move away from a chronological march through film history and build something that is more dynamic, surprising, diverse and engaging. Our core exhibition is being designed in such a way that stories can change over time… Every eight to 12 months, 20% of this will shift. So you’re constantly seeing new things as you come back."
These words echo Michael Govan's talking points for LACMA's Peter Zumthor building. The two Miracle Mile institutions are de-emphasizing permanent displays and unique masterpieces. Kramer and Govan each cite scholarship and play both ends of the intellectual spectrum against the middle. Ever-changing museum displays are super-smart (because scholars say that histories, hierarchies, and categories are to be received with skepticism) and also super-populist (because history is elitist and B-O-R-I-N-G). Ergo, fixed displays embodying fixed histories should be consigned to the flames.
Former Academy Museum director (and former MOCA curator) Kerry Brougher evidently planned a more historical layout. Under Kramer's direction, the Academy Museum has edged towards Hollywood tourist attraction. This imposes the imperatives of wax museums. Most visitors will come to see memorabilia of recent movies. They would presumably balk at starting with 10 chronological rooms of black-and-white movies they've never heard of (like Citizen Kane?).
|wHY Architecture rendering of gallery of science-fiction and fantasy character design. (c) Academy Museum Foundation/Image by wHY Architecture|
The Academy Museum's permanent display has the pointedly plural name "Stories of Cinema." It consists of 20 rooms, of which only one covers a particular epoch: a "Prelude to Cinema" gallery of magic lanterns, zoetropes, and the like. This would be chronologically the first, but it doesn't seem to be the first a typical visitor would encounter. It's on the third level between a gallery of sci-fi/fantasy characters and the Oscars Experience, "allowing visitors their own photo opportunity and Oscar moment."
For the most part galleries explore specific job descriptions like screenwriting, casting, cinematography, sound design, and costumes. This allows each room to have material from recent hits and franchises. As far as I can tell, the layout is random, without chronology, alphabetic order, or anything else to govern what's in the next room.
Pedro Almodóvor, Hildur Guonadóttir, and Spike Lee will each curate a gallery, these installations to be replaced over time with those of other artists. This is one part of the achronological design that sounds promising. The choice of filmmaker-curators is not so predictable as might have been expected (ditto for Hayao Miyazaki, subject of the first big loan exhibition).
|wHY Architecture rendering of Oscar Micheaux installation. (c) Academy Museum Foundation/Image by wHY Architecture|
To have a so-called permanent display is to make value judgments, to say that some films are better or more influential or more original. These are only the curators' opinions but are no less valuable for that. It's OK to disagree; good installations should spark debate. If the Academy Museum is disavowing this role, it comes with no little irony. The Academy is financed by an annual awards show dedicated to the proposition that some movies are better than others.
The Academy Museum can be a tourist attraction, reassuring visitors that they already know everything they need to know about film. Or it can enrich their experience of film, introducing them to a history they didn't know existed.
Either way, museums aren't neutral. That includes decisions about how long installations remain on view.
|wHY Architecture rendering of gallery of Oscar statuettes. This will occupy the 1939 building's cylindrical feature at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax and will evidently be permanent. (c) Academy Museum Foundation/Image by wHY Architecture|