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An Early Peek Inside the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

As Tom Hanks announced at the Oscars, the museum opens December of this year, the result of a 90-year quest by the Academy to create a museum dedicated to their art and industry.

The David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — In Hollywood a long-gestating, oft-delayed, over-budget boondoggle of a project is finally ready to make its debut — and no, it’s not about to hit the theaters this summer. What is set to be the definitive museum in Los Angeles dedicated to film history is ready for its close-up, with doors set to open near the end of the year.

“It is my pleasure to announce that the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open its doors on December 14, 2020,” actor and museum trustee Tom Hanks said on Sunday night’s telecast of the Oscars. “It’s going to be a very big deal. We’ll see you there.”

Located at the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, just next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Academy Museum’s opening will be the end result of a nine-decade quest by the Academy to have a museum dedicated to their art and industry. Designed by the architect Renzo Piano, it will utilize the historic May Company Building and a newly constructed, adjoining spherical structure that has been likened to the Death Star from Star Wars. With 50,000 square feet of exhibition space and two on-site movie theaters (including the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater), it will be the largest museum in Los Angeles dedicated to the art form that has come to define the city.  

Exterior view of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue

“Los Angeles has never had a movie museum of this scale, and yet the motion picture industry and the city of Los Angeles have long recognized the need,” said Academy Museum director Bill Kramer in opening statements on a media tour of the space. “In fact the founders of the Academy envisioned a movie museum in Los Angeles more than 90 years ago. And now it is finally happening.”

Indeed there has long been the absence of a centralized, encyclopedic museum dedicated to the history of film in Los Angeles, though not for lack of trying. The late actress Debbie Reynolds had been a longtime cheerleader for the preservation of Hollywood’s past, though her own personal attempts at maintaining a museum failed and she ultimately sold her collection at auction. In Hollywood, not far from the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars are held annually, there is already the Hollywood Museum, a privately run space that showcases memorabilia, and the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which focuses on the early Silent Era.

Construction hats at the Academy Museum

While the Academy claims that the museum space is now 95% complete, Friday’s media tour still left a lot to the imagination of how the space would be utilized when it opens to the public. Construction equipment was still strewn about, and exhibits were yet to be installed. In fact, the museum’s core exhibitions have since been reconfigured since they were announced over a year ago.

The second and third floors of the May Company Building, now renamed the Saban Building, will constitute the core exhibitions. The first of these exhibits will take visitors on a journey through the filmmaking process, using the making of The Wizard of Oz as its roadmap. Plans are currently vague for what’s in store for the rest of the core exhibitions on opening day, though curators say it will focus on science fiction and fantasy films. The fourth floor will be the space for temporary exhibitions, starting with the first-ever retrospective of director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to take place in the United States. The Miyazaki exhibition will be followed by Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900–1970, an exhibit co-curated by the Academy Museum’s Doris Berger and Rhea L. Combs, a curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Dolby Family Terrace

This reconfiguring of the museum’s core exhibitions, though still bare enough to leave room for possibilities, feels like a small step back from the initial announcement that the spaces would be a “revisionist” history of cinema and highlight long-marginalized art and artists, such as pioneering women in filmmaking and independent Indian cinema. Certainly the Academy, especially in the wake of awarding their top prize to the first non-English language film, is cognizant of their role and power in shaping these narratives.

We probably won’t have to wait until Regeneration for the Academy Museum to acknowledge the place that non-white or non-male artists have long held in filmmaking. But it’s easy to remain skeptical — after all, this is the same body that awarded Green Book the Oscar for Best Picture a year ago.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Blvd, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) is slated to open on December 14, 2020. 

Corrections: The May Company building was renamed the Saban Building, not the Saban Galleries, as previously written in this article. The exhibition Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900–1970 will be co-curated by a curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but is not organized in collaboration with the museum. This has been amended. 

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