Film History Is Bunk, Says the Academy Museum

Still from Citizen Kane, 1941
Orson Welles commissioned four versions of "Rosebud" for Citizen Kane. One was a pine sled sturdy enough to be ridden by the actor playing the young Charles Foster Kane. The other three, of balsa wood, were created for the closing shot of "Rosebud" being burned in an incinerator. That allowed for three takes. Welles liked the second, sparing the third balsa sled.

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
What's not so clear is how much "Rosebud" will be on view at the Academy Museum. It's to be shown in the inaugural installation, but museum director Bill Kramer plans an ever-changing display of the museum's permanent collection.

"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
A museum is expected to respond to scholarship, in all its complexity, and make sense of it for the visitor. One rendering shows a room devoted to pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux and his contemporaries are an area of active research. If the museum's curators believe that Micheaux's achievements are worth celebrating, why shouldn't they rate a certain degree of permanence?

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


Anonymous said…
> The Academy is financed by an annual
> awards show dedicated to the proposition
> that some movies are better than others.

Quality and excellence are now more relative and situational than before. Whether a museum is good or not, informative or not, well organized or not now is altogether in the eye of the beholder.

That ethos goes over even better in Los Angeles since "...they worship everything and they value nothing.” Case in point: LA County Board of Supervisors, LA City council members and many others, such as Elaine Wynn, the head of the Keck Foundation, etc.

Another case in point: LA's Music Center still waiting for years to receive support for major upgrading and renovation. Maybe they should promote tearing it down and dispersing its activity?
Anonymous said…
^^^ It's NOT altogether in the eye of the beholder.

The academic critique of temporality (linear and teleological) and spatiality (i.e., encyclopedic museum) is not coterminous with the ethos that "worships everything and values nothing." That's a populist misconception.

Under the scrutiny of that critique, quality and excellence still endure. See Foucault's reading of Las Meninas (Velazquez), or Deleuze's reading of El Greco or Bacon.

What does not last under the scrutiny of that critique is the "encyclopedic museum" or the late-modernist complacency of Pereira's LACMA buildings.
Anonymous said…
> What does not last under the
> scrutiny of that critique is
> the "encyclopedic museum"

Oh, look at the rube dismissing the the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Institute of Arts, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, etc, etc.

Figures you're the type who lives in Los Angeles.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
^^^ Oh, look at the rube who thinks he knows what is happening at those other museums:

The Met and MOMA are doing exactly the same thing that LACMA is proposing:

Figures you're the type who is part of the Save-LACMA mob. The Save-LACMA mob treasures the "encyclopedic" museum like Trump treasures the border wall. Make LACMA Great Again.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
> Oh, look at the rube who thinks he
> nows what is happening at those other
> museums:

> The Met and MOMA are doing exactly the
> same thing that LACMA is proposing:
> /2019/making-the-met

Huh? You're such a philistine you think the Met's 150th Anniversary exhibition is somehow a riff on the idiocy of Michael Govan and his Zumthor debacle?

Next you're going to claim that artworks by Thomas Kinkade should offset the ones the Ahmanson Foundation will no longer be donating to LACMA.
Anonymous said…
Huh, you're the rube who thinks the Met and MOMA are on your side.

They are NOT on your side. They are smarter than you. That is why they are renouncing the divisions and categories of the encyclopedic museum.

They don't think Govan is an idiot. They think people like you are insidious because you treasure the encyclopedic museum like Trump treasures the border wall.

Indeed, the description of the "Making of the Met" Anniversary Show actually suggests that the concepts (encyclopedic museum and border wall) may be interchangeable.

Did you read that part? Can you read? Are you really this stupid?
Anonymous said…
> Are you really this stupid?

Are you that much of a dumb hick?
Anonymous said…
Wow. Anonymous needs to switch to decaf.