Art doesn’t build walls but it can have a home. Arguably nowhere can claim to be film’s spiritual home more than Los Angeles’ ‘Miracle Mile’, the site of so much of cinema’s genesis and soon to be the home of the new Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences Museum.
Following the global covid pandemic, the museum is now set to open in late September 2021 after an extensive renovation of the art deco May Building on Wilshire Boulevard. Speaking at a virtual tour of the Renzo Piano-designed complex, Ted Sarandos, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Academy Museum and joint CEO of Netflix, credited the space “as a place to dive deeper” for all film fans, and to transcend the velvet of the cinema seat by giving visitors a comprehensive overview of the history of motion pictures and the Academy’s role in that story.
“It is an astonishing building,” former BAFTA Los Angeles CEO Chantal Rickards OBE told CulturAll. “It is gathering treasures from all over the world and will showcase important memorabilia, both technical and creative, to tell the rich story of filmmaking.”
Almost since its inception in 1927, the Academy has sought to build an official museum. Following further delays due to covid but the end is now in sight.
Having visited twice during construction, Rickards says the promise of the project is clear. “I was overwhelmed by the scale of it and its enormous potential as an important, world-class museum and as a venue for the myriad film-related events in Hollywood. There is talk of it being used for this year’s Oscars event.”
Rickards reveals the Academy’s museum is set to be in good company; BAFTA too is creating new space at its London HQ for more exhibitions relating to film, TV and games in a bid to be more public-facing as befits its arts education charitable status. However, she recognises that, because of its location, the Academy’s new centrepiece will “automatically become the most important film museum in the world.”
The pedigree of the exhibits certainly supports that. The Academy now has a home for the world’s largest collection of movie memorabilia and the world’s largest film library, both slotting into a permanent exhibition which encompasses all of the key ingredients that go into making our celluloid dreams and nightmares. Visitors will experience iconic creations such as The Wizard of Oz and the soundscape from Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as costume, hair and make-up exhibitions.
Genres will also be broken down into documentary, fantasy, sci-fi and horror. Among the memorabilia are the props that rendered Jurassic Park’s T-Rex, the Terminator’s nemesis and ‘Bruce’ the shark the from Jaws. The museum will also boast a state of the art 1,000-seat cinema able to play 35mm, 70mm and nitrocellulose film, replete with a 60-player orchestra pit.
This will all support numerous projects and exhibitions, including ‘The Path to Cinema’, ‘The Oscars Experience’ and notably ‘Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971’, an exhibition that, when it opens next year, promises to “reveal the important and underrecognised history of African Americans filmmakers in the development of American cinema.”
Having provided the dominant framework by which artistic success is judged for almost 100 years through their iconic Oscars, it seems natural, if belated, that the Academy would build a more formal curation space. Having been synonymous with the industry for so long there’s a legitimate concern that their patronage could give them too much of a sense of licence, maybe even entitlement, to own the story of film.
Thankfully, this does not seem to be the case. It appears that the content of the museum will mirror its accessible physical form in its open flow. Aptly, there is much focus on the challenges faced by the film industry and by media, today and yesterday. A specific space is given over to covering the contemporary themes and protest behind Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, labour relations and the climate emergence. The issues of stereotypes, orientalism and racism are also addressed head on, as the museum recognises how and when film, and the Academy, has fallen on the wrong side of history.
“We want people to see themselves reflected in the film industry,” says director and president of the Academy, Bill Kramer, at a Q&A following the tour. “We want to tell diverse, inclusive and accessible stories about the history of cinema and where it’s going.”
There’s a sense of reflection in the cinema experience that is both personal and shared, says chief artistic and programming officer Jacqueline Stewart, which shouldn’t feel imposed by the curation: “We want people to be able to do what they do at the movies—movies create empathy. This is a diverse space, so just seeing the reactions of other people and having this much larger conversation about the importance of movies, is incredibly important to our mission.”
The Los Angeles, and the world, that the Academy of Motion Picture’s Museum sits in is very different from the tinsel town that dreams built in those volatile decades between the world wars. There is more there now: more hope, more money, more power, more destitution, more pain, more dreams to be made, more to be broken. More potential… as there is in broader society that has never felt more fractious in its connectivity.
The museum was not designed to shirk the telling of these challenges, says Stewart. “We want to be a platform for furthering those conversations and helping to develop tools for having difficult conversations. We didn’t feel it was the right approach to stay simply in the lane of celebration at a time when we all know there are national and global conversations about these issues—and that the media are at the centre of those questions.”
The silver screen may never have felt so powerfully porous.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Museum is set to open on September 30th 2021