Movie Museum Rethinks Exhibitions in Response to a Changing World

LOS ANGELES — How do you make a museum about an industry even as that industry is changing? How do you represent a history when that history is full of omissions?

This is the challenge facing the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which has been in the works since 2012 and — after several delays, the most recent of which was caused by the pandemic — is finally scheduled to open on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in September.

While the 300,000-square-foot, $482 million museum, designed by Renzo Piano, has been under construction, the movie business has been going through a process of deconstruction, brought about by seismic social movements like #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Recognition of the obstacles faced by female directors, Asian American actors and other groups has also intensified.

As a result, the museum’s new director and president, Bill Kramer — who in 2019 replaced the museum’s founding director, Kerry Brougher — has used the last two years to rethink and refine the exhibition spaces, making sure to acknowledge the flawed history of film and to give women as well as people of color their due.

A new gallery on the history of the Oscars by year, for example, has wraparound screens that present significant acceptance speeches like those by Hattie McDaniel (“Gone With the Wind”), the first Black actor to win an Oscar, who was forced to sit at a segregated table at the ceremony; Bong Joon Ho, director of the South Korean film “Parasite”; and the only two women to win best director, Chloé Zhao and Kathryn Bigelow.

“What we don’t want is a celebratory space that doesn’t have critical conversations about what we haven’t gotten right,” Kramer said during a recent walk-through of the museum. “It’s not skewing the story. It’s talking about films that have been there the whole time.”

Founded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, the museum has more than 13 million objects in a collection that has been growing since the academy was founded in 1927. These include photographs, scripts, costumes, production design drawings, props, posters and films.

Originally, the museum had planned to present a largely uncritical history of the movie industry with a plan titled “Where Dreams Are Made: A Journey Inside the Movies.”

But the museum under Kramer — who had worked in development for four years and was hired back from the Brooklyn Academy of Music — has pushed for a more complex, complete narrative that faces the field’s shortcomings.

“Hollywood — while a marvelous place and a great industry — has left a lot of stuff out,” said the actress Whoopi Goldberg, who serves on the academy’s board of governors. “People who are going to be going to this museum may not see themselves in the cinema, in the posters — they were just not there.”

“If we’re going to survive as an academy, we have to step up to the plate,” she added, “to make sure we say: ‘Welcome. The door may have been closed, but we’re not doing that anymore.’”

After a redesign by Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architecture, the exhibitions have been overhauled. A new introductory 13-minute film on the history of cinema includes movies by Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, Indigenous and international filmmakers.

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A gallery that explores the making of “The Wizard of Oz” has been expanded to include not only the work of those who helped create the film, but also less flattering components, namely Louis B. Mayer’s mistreatment of Judy Garland.

Galleries in the core exhibition that explore the history of the Academy Awards now have a space containing 20 Oscars that represent victories by a diverse group including Sidney Poitier, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ang Lee and Barry Jenkins.

“We can’t represent film unless we’re representing all of film,” said Dawn Hudson, the chief executive of the film academy, adding of the industry’s inequities: “That’s a terrible legacy to have, and we have it.”

Along with a gallery that explores “Citizen Kane” are those that delve into the 2002 comedy “Real Women Have Curves”; the directors Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar; the actor and martial artist Bruce Lee; and the editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

One gallery is devoted to Oscar Micheaux, a Black auteur who produced films for Black audiences “who routinely found themselves excluded, stereotyped and vilified in mainstream movies,” Kramer said, adding that Micheaux was “as much of an innovator during the early decades of the movie industry as Orson Welles.”

Other galleries look at four social impact areas — Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, labor relations and climate change — through documentary and narrative films; at racism and sexism in animation; and at the history of blackface, yellowface and redface in makeup.

“It’s been easy for a long time for people to hide sins,” said the actress Laura Dern, a member of the museum’s board, adding that it’s time “to tell the truth about the history.”

The museum has an annual operating budget of $46 million and is hoping to bring its $22 million endowment to $115 million over the next several years.

Special exhibitions on the fourth floor will be devoted first to the animation of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) and then the history of Black cinema from 1898 to 1971.

Decision making has also been more widely distributed to better reflect the diversity the museum seeks to represent, with an Inclusion Advisory Committee — led by the film producer Effie Brown — that has been expanded from eight to 24 academy members.

To help develop new exhibition content, Kramer created 17 task forces made up of three academy members each who represent their branches (such as editing, costume design or acting), with one member of each also sitting on the inclusion committee.

In addition, the museum has diversified its hiring.

At the first meeting of the inclusion committee in 2017, “I remember looking at the staff of the museum and thinking, ‘Why is everybody white?’” said Arthur Dong, a documentary filmmaker who is on the committee. “We put our stamp on this museum. We’ve made an impression on what the public will see, how it will interpret the history of cinema and how we think about the future of cinema.”

Among Kramer’s key hires are Jacqueline Stewart, a Chicago film scholar, as chief artistic and programming officer, and Jenny He, an independent curator, as exhibitions curator. In April, Stewart moderated an online conversation, “Breaking the Oscars Ceiling,” with four women who achieved milestones at the Academy Awards — Sophia Loren, Goldberg, Marlee Matlin and Sainte-Marie.

“We know we’re raising issues that might be polarizing,” Stewart said. “Some people may want to enjoy beloved films and characters and not necessarily think about minstrelsy or the ways films can reinforce problematic narratives about body image and what constitutes romance.”

Indeed, these changes haven’t always been easy, with industry professionals forced to adjust to a less halcyon version of Hollywood. But academy members say the process is necessary.

“After a while, the person that you love has some problems you’re not proud of,” said Craig Barron, an American visual effects artist and a longtime academy governor. “For the relationship to continue, these things have to be worked out. You have to have those other voices.”

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