The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures struggles to keep its ego in check — like the ill-fated Newseum before it

The new $480 million museum faces both financial and curatorial challenges as it attempts to document the industry it celebrates

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which opened in September, includes a spherical structure with two theaters, designed by renowned museum architect Renzo Piano. (Iwan Baan/Academy Museum Foundation)
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LOS ANGELES — The first gallery that visitors to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures encounter is a darkened space on the ground floor, full of screens showing snippets of familiar movies. Some are so revered you will remember where you were when you first saw them. Others are merely famous, but you may recall key scenes without ever having bothered to watch the whole thing. The effect is like one of those montage reels that clutter up the Academy Awards broadcast — all the best bits of the last year run together to suggest that your personal memory of the past is exactly coextensive with Hollywood’s manufacture of fantasy.

The museum opened in September, after years of delay, cost overruns and leadership turmoil. It occupies the old May Company building on Wilshire Boulevard, with a new, spherical addition next door. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is its neighbor, with the La Brea Tar Pits just beyond that. The final cost, more than $480 million, isn’t just a self-interested investment in the Hollywood hype machine, but also a major commitment to the city’s cultural infrastructure and civic identity.

Throughout its galleries, I was reminded of another museum, the Newseum in D.C., which closed its doors two years before the Academy Museum opened. Both are (or, one is) devoted not just to a cultural product — filmmaking or newsgathering — but to the industry that profits from that work as well. Both laid out enormous sums to occupy trophy buildings: the Newseum in a massive, corporate-looking space fronted by a giant stone inscription of the First Amendment on Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol; the Academy in buildings designed and remodeled by Renzo Piano, the dominant architect in the museum sector today (with additional interior gallery spaces designed by Kulapat Yantrasast). The Newseum closed in December 2019 and sold its home to Johns Hopkins University.

The Newseum shutters, symptom of a passing age of greatness

The Academy Museum, like the Newseum before it, does an imperfect job of balancing two basic identities and purposes, one essentially self-promotional, the other more civic-minded. It is both a shrine and pantheon, and a space for exhibitions and education. Among the more than 13 million objects in its collection are things like hand-annotated scripts and early cameras that have explanatory power, and many others that are merely sacred. Much is made of a pair of ruby slippers, one of several sets made for Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” But these are the museum equivalent of a random sighting of celebrity on the sidewalk. There’s a frisson, but little other value to the encounter.

The museum succeeds when its curators focus on the how and why of illusionism. A gallery devoted to sound uses a scene from one of the Indiana Jones films to reveal the surprisingly low-tech origins of the soundtrack: Biting into an apple or car wheels grinding on gravel give aural dimension to a snapping vine or a boulder rolling over stone. A double-height gallery includes a painted backdrop from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” with a detailed look at how that two-dimensional image of Mount Rushmore, and selected sculptural pieces, were edited together to create a convincing illusion of a chase scene at the iconic monument.

There’s a rule in the museum world too little regarded by curators and designers: Distance is objectivity, immersion is ideology. The more objective moments in the Academy Museum include a look at the deplorable way the actors who played the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” were treated, and the institutional marginalization of figures such as Oscar Micheaux, the African American filmmaker who directed or produced dozens of films and helped construct a parallel film industry to tell stories of people who existed in Hollywood’s output only as caricatures.

But when it reverts to the montage-style display of film in its opening gallery, the museum tends to lose that distance. The Newseum suffered from a similar problem. It often did a good job explaining the nuts and bolts of how news is gathered, processed, edited and disseminated. But it also lapsed into bathos at times, in galleries about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or a shrine to journalists killed while on duty.

Is it a museum, or not?

Both museums underscore the danger of too much institutional self-inflation. The Newseum had a tendency to say to the audience not just “here’s how we bring you the facts of the world,” but rather, “we shaped that world for the better,” especially in exhibits dealing with civil rights or other social movements.

The Academy Museum goes even further, implicitly claiming not just to create illusions of the world, but also to manufacture it wholesale. One of its architectural curiosities is an upper-level terrace atop the new spherical space, accessed by crossing a bridge named for Barbra Streisand. When I visited, the chairs in this open-air gallery were arranged neatly in rows, like in a movie theater, looking out at the hills to the north, as if landscape and topography were all part of the show, a giant backdrop so finely painted that the illusion of reality is perfect.

Like the Newseum, the Academy Museum will inevitably struggle with the competing interests inherent to the industry it celebrates. There are the movie studios, with their corporate agendas, and then creatives and talent who will want recognition and acknowledgment. The greatest tension is likely that between good film and lousy film, between the artistic impulses of visionary filmmakers and the vast entertainment juggernaut that supposedly pays for everything else.

Will the Academy Museum face the same economic hurdles the Newseum faced? I asked Joanna Woronkowicz, faculty director of the Center for Cultural Affairs at Indiana University, who studies the economics of cultural institutions, whether the curatorial similarities are likely to translate to similar financial challenges. She thought not.

“Given who is involved in this project and where they are located, it is not going to be a disaster case,” she says, acknowledging that this is prognostication.

She pointed to the subject matter of the Academy Museum, which has an inherently broader appeal than the news industry. The people involved, the board and the donors, are deeply invested in the idea of an Academy Museum, and are likely to provide a steadier base for fundraising. And although the Academy Museum, like the Newseum, is charging admission, the Newseum did that in a city were many of the best museums are free. Los Angeles is also a major metropolitan entrepôt, and that means a steady supply of new visitors, people who want to experience a mostly invisible business — filmmaking — in a tangible way.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the basic audience attitude toward the two industries. People may be cynical about celebrity and indulge in schadenfreude when its pride is awarded the inevitable fall. But ultimately, they love what Hollywood does in a way that far exceeds any intellectual appreciation for the work of journalists.

Hollywood’s sins are manifold: It glamorizes violence, fetishizes youth, celebrates materialism and vulgar displays of raw power; it trivializes or ignores complexity, and appropriates cultural narratives shamelessly. Large parts of the industry are as bankrupt of moral and civic value as any other business, including the extraction of natural resources and speculation in real estate.

Underneath all that there is, occasionally, art. How that has survived, and how it might continue to survive, make up the essential narrative of any museum devoted to film. The first step, which the new museum does occasionally and imperfectly, is to disillusion people and show them the real, messy, historical truth of the business.

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