Why the News of the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture Troubles Me


The history of cinema, as told by the Academy.

This morning the New York Times ran an article about the forthcoming Academy Museum of the Motion Picture, to open in Los Angeles next year. People across social media reacted very positively, with several friends of mine discussing the necessity of a California vacation in 2019. However, the piece featured quotes from the museum’s director, Kerry Brougher, which—in my mind at least—are reason for serious concern amongst fans of silent films.

The motion picture industry as we know it was founded in Los Angeles. Yes, there was a thriving film industry in France and New Jersey and Chicago before cinema found its way to Los Angeles. But it was in Los Angeles that the modern studio system was born; it is where the first movie stars were crowned; it is where nearly all of the most famous films in history have been made. From D.W. Griffith to Louis B. Mayer to Charlie Chaplin to Mary Pickford, the men and women who laid the foundation for the modern movie industry lived, worked, and thrived in Los Angeles.

The only reason the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture is in Los Angeles is because the Academy itself was founded in Los Angeles. The reason the Academy was founded in Los Angeles is because the modern film industry was born in Los Angeles. It’s that simple.

And yet, the director of the museum makes a point of emphasizing that the exhibits contained therein will have remarkably little to do with Los Angeles.

The first temporary exhibit will focus on Hayao Miyazaki, which—call me cynical—seems like a bit of a cash grab given Studio Ghibli’s popularity in the social media era. I’m sure they’ll make the exhibit as Instagram-able as possible.

Permanent exhibits will focus on “Soviet cinema” and “Indian independent film.” I hope I’m not the only one who is, quite frankly, baffled that such exhibits would be the anchors of a new cinema museum located in Los Angeles. This is nothing against Japanese or Soviet or Indian cinema—these are all fascinating fields ripe for study and appreciation. But should they be the main focus of a museum located just miles from where DeMille filmed The Squaw Man?

From Mr. Brougher’s descriptions, it seems to me that the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture could be located literally anywhere around the globe. It could be located in Berlin or Tokyo or London or Sydney. There is nothing in his description of the museum that places it squarely in the center of the city where the modern movie industry was born. I feel like I’m going crazy typing that phrase over and over. Hollywood as we know it only exists because of motion pictures, and motion pictures as we known them only exist because of Hollywood.

The museum promises a permanent display on “international silent film.” Why focus on international silent films when thousands of movies were made a stone’s throw away? I have learned about German silent film at the Filmmuseum Berlin. I have learned about Dutch silent film at the EYE Filmmuseum Amsterdam. Why can’t the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture, based in Los Angeles, emphasize films made in Los Angeles? This is not to say that international films should not be represented–but to make them the focus of a high-profile New York Times feature? It is a disgrace and a disservice to the Mayers, the Laskys, the DeMilles, the Zukors, the Chaplins, the Keatons, the Pickfords—who all made immeasurable contributions to the film industry.

Perhaps my biggest issue with Mr. Brougher’s remarks, however, comes in his use of the word “revisionist” when describing the museum’s approach to cinema history. I understand the moral obligation for a museum in the 21st century to be dedicated to inclusivity and diversity. The word “revisionist,” though, holds a different connotation—the sense that people and films who do not fit the museum’s preordained agenda will be removed from the history books. Already this is apparent in the Times article—it will not be Ginger Rogers who stands beside Fred Astaire, but Rita Moreno. The fact that most iconic on-screen couple of all time will be split up because Ginger Rogers was not “diverse” enough is insulting, baffling, and frightening.

Perhaps the Academy Museum of the Motion Picture will surprise me. Perhaps it will be a dream come true for lovers of classic film—I would love nothing more. But as of right now, I am afraid that the museum will completely eschew California’s cinematic history. I worry that it will lack warmth and personality; that it will be a faceless and globalist institution more concerned with filling racial quotas that it is with telling the history of the motion picture industry.

Mr. Brougher, please prove me wrong.

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