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The Academy Museum: Immortalizing Hollywood’s Film Industry

By Angela Bao
Sep. 27, 2021
The Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum. (Photo credit): Joshua White

The Academy Museum is the largest institution in the U.S. dedicated to the art and science of filmmaking—here’s what visitors can expect when it opens September 30.

The art, science, and business of moviemaking is intrinsically tied to the culture and blueprint of Los Angeles—and now it is receiving its proper dues. A project decades in the making, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open to the public on September 30 and dedicate more than 50,000-square-feet of gallery space to the art, science, and history of filmmaking—the largest such institution in the United States.

“Los Angeles is the global home of moviemaking, and it is high time that we developed a welcoming and accessible space for everyone to celebrate (and critique) our dynamic history,” says Bill Kramer, the director and president of the Academy Museum. “Moviemaking is a relatively new artistic medium—only a little more than a century old—and it deserves an institution devoted to preserving and fostering a deep understanding of this vital art form.”

Immortalizing Hollywood

Perhaps no other city in the United States is as synonymous with one particular industry as Hollywood is with film. Although some of the earliest beginnings of film and cinema originated in Europe, the 1920s saw the film industry grow exponentially in Los Angeles, where the studio system had taken root. It only made sense that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would create a museum dedicated to moviemaking in the City of Angels, where the Academy is also headquartered.

Street view of the Sphere Building. (Photo credit): Iwan Baan

The film industry is baked into the DNA of Los Angeles, and cinema has not only shaped the city itself, but the world on a greater scale. Especially in a time of increasingly visible disparity and misunderstanding between people and cultures, the ways film has facilitated cross-cultural dialogue is becoming more scrutinized.

“Movies help to shape the culture at large, build empathy, and open our minds to new ideas and cultures,” says Kramer. “We need the power of film now more than ever.”

The making of the perfect venue

The Academy of Motion Pictures’ plan for the museum was well over a decade in the making. Despite the circuitous route that originally started with plans for a location on Sunset Boulevard and then was temporarily waylaid by the 2008 recession, the Academy eventually landed at the former May Company building in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile neighborhood. The new Academy Museum was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, who also did The Broad Museum in Downtown Los Angeles, and is located on the same block as other notable Los Angeles cultural centers, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum.

Interior of the Academy Museum. (Photo credit): Joshua White

The Academy Museum covers a 300,000-square-foot campus comprised of the Saban Building and the Sphere Building, the latter of which houses the David Geffen Theater that will host daily movie screenings and major film events.

The Saban Building, formerly the May Company department store, is a designated LA historic landmark that originally opened in 1939 and is an iconic example of Streamline Moderne architecture. That year was also considered one of the greatest years in film history, states Kramer, since classic films such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind,” Greta Garbo’s “Ninotchka,” and many others, were all released then.

“We love that connectivity to our cinematic history,” Kramer adds. “We were thrilled to be given the opportunity to preserve the exterior and renovate the interior.”

Creating a cinematic museum experience

Left panel: The “Hayao Miyazaki” exhibit. Right panel: A cel from “Princess Mononoke.” (Photo credit): Joshua White

The Academy Museum’s inaugural temporary exhibition, “Hayao Miyazaki,” will be centered on the titular Japanese director and animator, and marks the first exhibit in the United States solely dedicated to the renowned artist. The exhibition will dive into each of Miyazaki’s feature films, including the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away,” and feature more than 300 objects, ranging from original imageboards, to cels (short for celluloids, transparent sheets on which animators hand-draw in traditional animation), some of which will be on public view outside of Japan for the first time.

Along with its rotating exhibitions, the Academy Museum features a permanent, immersive core exhibit, “Stories of Cinema.” Spread across three floors, “Stories of Cinema” will cover the history of moviemaking, from its origins in the late nineteenth century, to the present day. Visitors will go from gallery to gallery, some of which have been developed in collaboration with Oscar-winning writer-directors, such as Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar, that showcase their unique voices, perspectives, and artistry. Other galleries will be dedicated to specific genres of film, like science fiction and fantasy, documentaries, and animation. The goal was to create an immersive experience, where people will be surrounded by items that are needed to create a cinematic experience, such as moving images, props, costumes, and scripts.

The Academy Museum’s “Stories of Cinema.” (Photo credit): Joshua White

“Moviemaking combines so many vital components of visual and performing arts and the sciences,” says Kramer. “There are so many incredible artists, technicians, inventors, and executives who work together to create the movies that we know and love. One of our many goals in the museum is to highlight the work of a diverse group of these artists and professionals. We want visitors to learn how movies are made and to see all the ways in which one can contribute to moviemaking.”

The Academy Museum’s “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection.” (Photo credit): Joshua White

Other permanent fixtures include “The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection,” considered to be one of the foremost collections of pre-cinematic optical toys and devices, and “The Oscars Experience” in the East West Bank Gallery, which will be a fun, virtual experience where visitors can enact receiving their own Oscar at the Dolby Theatre.

“The Oscars Experience” at the East West Bank Gallery

“We are so incredibly lucky and grateful to have a partner in East West Bank,” says Kramer. “East West Bank so generously supported the building of the museum, and the gallery that houses ‘The Oscars Experience’ is named in honor of the bank in recognition of this support.”

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