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The Five Biggest Challenges of Building a Film Museum

Every decade or so, there is talk of an animation museum in the United States, and while none has ever been built, two new museums on the horizon promise to be a pretty big deal for the film and animation communities.

The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum and the Academy Museum will hopefully be two huge steps forward in the preservation and public education of filmmaking. These forthcoming institutions also serve as a reminder that film museums present a set of wholly unique challenges for the curators, designers and developers involved.

To see the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures, you have to go to a museum. The world’s most famous films, however, can be seen at a movie theater. Therefore, any film or animation museum has to offer a richer experience that brings the audience closer to the filmmaking process. In doing this, five major challenges—aside from financial ones—arise for the film museum.

1. Exhibiting the Filmmaking Process

When was the last time you heard of a museum exhibition on the making of  the Mona Lisa? Or Michelangelo’s David? The processes behind the most famous paintings, drawings or sculptures are rarely revealed in museums. The curators, in fact, function under the assumption that patrons have a general understanding of how to paint and sculpt. A film, on the other hand, is created through the joint effort of hundreds of people, each with a specific job that isn’t necessarily understood by the general public. Directors, prop masters, animators, costumers, layout artists, grips—all of these roles must be defined by a film museum in such a way that anyone, from a child to an adult, could understand. This requires infinite amounts of primary research from curators, while producing a huge headache for exhibition designers.

It’s not as simple as hanging a few character model sheets onto a wall—film museums have to explain the jobs of character designers and visual development artists, and how they contribute to the final product. This explanation usually involves text, supporting photographs and film clips displayed on monitors. Creating this educational experience is worthwhile, but demands careful planning and coordination.

2. Ephemera

The products that result from making movies—costumes, props, masks, storyboards, paints, sketches, scripts—are not made to last. They are only made to survive the time it takes to produce the final cut of the film. If these objects even survive, which is often thanks to a sentimental crew member, they present major conservation challenges that are sometimes impossible to overcome. Background sketches, for example, are often created on newsprint, a non-archival paper that quickly yellows with time. Old reels of 35mm film are at risk of fading, molding or even catching fire. Yoda, a 30-year-old animatronic puppet, is notoriously known as the ultimate conservator’s nightmare. His latex body practically melts with time, degrading further with each instance he is moved from storage to display. With film ephemera, there isn’t much conservators can do besides wear white gloves, use temperature-controlled storage, and try their best to stave off deterioration.

3. Programming

The majority of museums dedicated to film have screening rooms, therefore they need thoughtful, exciting programming that pulls in a wide range of audiences. Typically, this is where animation gets the shaft; if shown, animation is often billed as a daytime family-oriented event. It is paramount for these museums to have the foresight of an adept curator who knows how to balance rare, niche screenings with crowd pleasers.

4. Going Digital

While leaving a film to deteriorate on 35mm stock is obviously a bad idea, digital transfers are temporary fixes. Discs, USB keys, and any device that stores data are ultimately not stable, at least not by a curation standard. As more filmmakers produce digital work, museums will struggle with concerns over proper storage and care. This is a universal problem at the moment, affecting any institution that collects digital formats. Fortunately, there are whole college majors devoted to the study and development of best practices for digital archiving.

5. Myth

It’s hard to imagine any visual art that must contend with as big of a unified myth as film. The lore of Hollywood is irrevocably intertwined with film, a relationship that affects the design and architecture of the museum itself.  The Academy Museum, for example, is building a multimedia exhibition that lets visitors “walk the red carpet.” While any film museum, especially one based in Los Angeles with connected donors, must pay homage to Hollywood, it’s easy for these institutions to get bogged down in all the related tropes: red velvet curtains, wall sconces that look like film reels, potted palm trees, and vintage movie signs. All these symbols are iconic and recognized by a mass audience, but museums have to know when to put on the brakes and let the art of filmmaking, not the nostalgia surrounding it, speak for itself.

Images in this post:

  1. Proposed rendering of the Academy Museum

  2. UPA Exhibit at MoMA, 1955
  3. Walt Disney Family Museum, permanent collection
  4. Barry McGee Show at Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2013 (photo by Greg Cook)
  5. Stanley Kubrick Exhibit at LACMA, 2012-2013
  6. Tim Burton Exhibit at MoMA, 2010

  • Mark Mayerson

    What animation needs desperately is a repository. There are animation drawings, backgrounds, model sheets etc. scattered throughout private collections. There are 16mm and 35mm prints that are rare and are in private hands. In the next 25 years, we will see the death of many animation film and art collectors. While their material may end up being resold on the collector’s market, there is no alternative for a collector who wishes to keep a collection intact or who wishes to make it available to a wider public.

    Ohio State University has the Billy Ireland Library, which is a giant repository of original comic strip artwork. Animation needs the equivalent, where materials can be preserved and made available to historians and the public.

    • AmidAmidi

      Couldn’t agree more, Mark. This year, it’s been painful to watch T. Hee’s family auction off their incredible archive of his work and watch it fall into the hands of individual gallery dealers and collectors. That work should have been preserved in some form before it was spread out in that form. This happens over and over again, and each time, it becomes more and more difficult to document the art form’s rich history.

      • Stephen Worth

        It’s even worse than you think. T Hee’s family put the art in the trash. An enterprising Disney artist found it at the Pasadena Swap Meet and bought the whole batch. He is now needing to pay his bills and ebay is the place. The information contained in the objects is more important than the objects themselves. I encourage everyone to do hires scans of their collections and donate them to a digital archive like animationresources.com

        • AmidAmidi

          Steve, I know a lot of Hee’s art made it onto the market some years ago. I don’t know where that came from, but Hee’s daughter kept all of his prime caricatures, paintings and original animation designs.They just started auctioning that off this year. Bonham’s has already done 2 auctions and a 3rd one is coming up soon.

          • Stephen Worth

            Somehow that ended up com, when it should be org. Anyone who has art they are planning on selling and want to have it digitized first can contact http://animationresources.org. thanks!

  • Inkan1969

    What happened to the Museum of Cartoon Art?

    • GW

      Is that the one in San Fransisco? I’ve been there. I don’t recall any animation specific artwork. It’s pretty much just comic panels there.

      • Steven Ng

        The San Francisco instituition is the Cartoon Art Museum which is unconnected to the one previously in New York and then in Florida. They have a small exhibit area dedicated to animation which includes a Winsor McCay drawing of the Lusitania sinking for one great example. They do host larger rotating exhibits on animation such as their Coraline and Paranorman shows. I’ve been to CAM events with Tom Sito, David Silverman, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Joe Grant, Mark Andrews, Andrew Jimenez, Pete Docter, Dice Tsutsumi, Ronnie del Carmen, Eric Goldberg, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston…I’m happy to be a member for nearly 20 years.

        • GW

          I don’t remember any animation portion. I guess whatever was there I didn’t find very memorable. I don’t know why exactly because I like The Sinking of the Lusitania. The thing I remember most is the Gustave Verbeek comics book I bought in the gift shop. I’ll probably visit the museum again this summer.

  • Zane Whittingham

    We have a working model here in the UK of a successful Film museum in the form of the National Media Museum in Bradford Yorkshire, approximately 3 hours out of London, North. If you are ever in England I recommend a visit. Level 5 has a whole floor dedicated to animation, showing the growth of animation from optical toys through to recent CGI Films.

    Link to Animation Level:


  • Beamish Kinowerks

    The Lucas one is supposed to be constructed in San Francisco’s Presidio, while the Academy Museum will be on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Both of them are in very advantageous locations, as the Lucas museum can acquire prints and other materials from the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, while the Academy museum is near UCLA, LACMA and, of course, all of the Hollywood studios.

  • Stephen Worth

    I fought long and hard to create a museum for ASIFA-Hollywood. Ultimately, the Board decided that wasn’t their priority and all the work I did over three decades has dissolved in two short years. Now, I’m convinced that a “cloud museum” is the way to go. Brick and mortar requires a lot of people to come together to make work. A small, dedicated group with their hearts in the right place can create a museum for the entire world using the internet.