Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum



Anything with the name Disney attached to it invites the image of the multimedia conglomerate with its chains of theme parks, cross-platform franchises and intermittently successful tentpole films. It is an industry, an empire in full expansion mode swallowing up every available license like a neighbouring Gallic province. As shareholders look to the bottom line of immediate returns and go about laying off its creative producers, it can be increasingly difficult to see Disney’s output as a work of art. There are even pressures within the Disney fan community to stifle you from looking at it in that way. Any artistic criticism - in the proper academic sense of the term as the rational evaluation of art - is frequently shouted down with endless thought-terminating clich├ęs like “Disneyland is not a museum” or assertions that one should embrace the Disney “magic” without thinking too hard about the product’s integrity.

One of the beautiful things about the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio is that it gives the individual some space to consider these questions. After all, it is a museum. As a museum, it is a place for contemplation of the life and work of not only Walt Disney, but the legion of artists he brought together like Mary Blair and Ub Iwerks. It allows the visitor to examine both the technical craft as well as the visual artistry, in an environment that is itself incredibly well designed.


Why is it in San Francisco though? That is so very far from Burbank and Anaheim, not to mention the town most associated with Walt, his boyhood home of Marceline, Missouri. Apparently it was a matter of convenience, as Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and her family has lived in the city for quite some time. When she came into possession of the boxes of relics after the passing of the clan matriarch Lillian, they ended up in warehouse space at the Presidio. Eventually the museum was developed out of these materials as part of the modern restoration and repurposing of this former military base. Of course, you might recall that San Francisco was the departure point for Professor Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The underwater camera used to film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other related ephemera.

Brad Aldridge of the website Just Disney observed that the geographic isolation of the Walt Disney Family Museum from the centre of the modern company’s power in the greater Los Angeles area mirrors the distance of the non-profit Walt Disney Family Foundation from the influence of shareholders, investors and the stock market. Both conspire to give the museum integrity in its presentation and the breathing room to discuss the art without worrying about the almighty dollar. Though understandable, it was not lost on me that the new Disney Infinity video game - itself a transparent imitation of Skylanders - features Pixar characters, Jack Sparrow, Nightmare Before Christmas, Agent P and Wreck-It Ralph as all the latest and greatest and most profitable franchises. With the exception of the special exhibitions, at the Walt Disney Family Museum we get just Disney. No Lucasfilm, no Pixar, no Muppets, no Marvel. Instead of the Princess franchise we get an involved look at the historical significance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The only pirates are animated and animatronic.

These sorts of comments usually get handwaved off as nostalgia, as though one could not Google whole strings of quotes by Walt talking about the value of nostalgia. While I am unrepentantly interested in Disney's history, up to now I had only a fairly cursory understanding of the actual events of the Mousetro’s life. Rather I would say that I am a student of Walt Disney’s milieu, the art form of Disney’s productions and how they shaped and were shaped by their time, as well as just the good clean entertainment value of the work. That's why I wrote undergraduate essays on Davy Crockett, mourned the end of Leonard Maltin's Walt Disney Treasures DVD series, took the Walk in Walt's Footsteps historical tour of Disneyland, and insist that that if Disneyland is not a museum, then at least parts of it should be inscribed as historic sites.

However, this is not simply a matter of nostalgia. One does not wish to restore Pirates of the Caribbean to an unvandalized state or visit the Walt Disney Family Museum to see the sorts of things that Disney used to make any more than they visit the Louvre to see the sort of art people used to do. The whole “Disneyland is not a museum” meme is an outdated artifact of a time 20 or 30 or 40 years ago when museums were considered the sarcophagi of culture (i.e.: when the Imagineers who coined the phrase were kids). At a time when the whole concept of the theme park is being chipped away at by shoehorning in currently profitable franchises wherever there’s room, Disneyland wishes in many ways that it could be as good as a modern museum. It wishes it could be as relevant and inspirational and engaging an experience as a museum, because museums are not the places where you go to connect to things that are old. They are the places where you go to connect to things that are great.

Despite the rantings of someone who works in the museums and heritage field himself, there isn't really a competition between Disneyland and the Walt Disney Family Museum. You can have both, and I do. A mere week before visiting the museum we were in Disneyland Paris, which has no historic connection to Walt Disney at all. The obvious emphasis of the corporate heads and average park guest is on having fun. Fun has its place, but it need not be the singular motivation and it most certainly is not the most significant of life's aspirations. I once had an unfortunate discussion with a misguided soul who felt that Tokyo Disneysea's Journey to the Center of the Earth - one of Imagineering's greatest accomplishments - was a waste of time except for the few seconds of acceleration at the end. He was interested only in fun and missed the art. The “Disneyland is not a museum” meme reminds me a lot of the complaint that church isn’t fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be much, much more than that. There is a lot to be said for the satisfaction of learning new things, of personal accomplishment, of the bonds of a family able to share experiences together, of emotional, aesthetic and even spiritual contemplation. Originally Disneyland did aspire to be more than just fun. According to Walt:
The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand. Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. Disneyland will be sometimes a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.
Did he say that Disneyland sometimes would be a museum?

Perhaps one of the most brilliant pieces of design in the museum is the corridor devoted to Disney's leap into documentary filmmaking: the True-Life Adventures and People and Places movies (the latter of which sadly have yet to be transferred to home video). Against one wall are screens playing clips from such motion pictures as The Vanishing Prairie and Samoa. Opposite this is a wall-sized picture window looking out on the vista of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. A guiding ethos of this blog is the axiom that one does not watch a Disney movie to escape this world, but to afterwards look upon this world with renewed wonder. Great art always points to those eternal verities that are beyond itself. The Walt Disney Family Museum depicts this principle quite literally.

Ashley enjoying the view.

Or what would have been the view if the fog hadn't
rolled in... The  Golden Gate Bridge is in there somewhere.

A constant source of trouble and controversy in the museum world is the tension between education and inspiration. Some museums take upon themselves the role of the educator and attempt to find ways to convey large amounts of information. In poorer examples it can lead to the “book on a wall” phenomenon, an exhausting ordeal of reading text that could be more comfortably done from a cozy armchair than on one's feet. Other museums seek to inspire and opt for a more text-lite approach meant to provoke further independent learning. Each one has their benefits and challenges. Text-lite, for example, can result in a confusing mess without context or narrative. The Walt Disney Family Museum faced two other challenges in deciding the course of its presentation.

The first is that much of the actual material remains of Walt Disney's artform remains the property of the Walt Disney Company. It is deposited in the company archives, or stands in a former orange grove in Anaheim. The museum by sad necessity is lighter on artifacts, acquiring what few illustrations, storyboards, background paintings, animation cels and figural maquettes the foundation has been able to. The larger part of the collection appears to be commercial memorabilia, like movie posters, magazines, and toys. One might almost consider it an interpretive centre more than a museum proper, insofar as it does more to help us understand the context of Walt Disney's work than to give us specific artifacts to look at.

Mickey Mouse memorabilia of the Thirties.

Storyboards from Song of the South.

Disney's wartime output.

The Davy Crockett and Zorro crazes.

The second challenge is that Walt worked in animation, the alchemy of bringing the immovable to life. The finished product is not like admiring a painting, sculpture or other artifact: it is watching a movie or riding an attraction. When looking at cels, backgrounds and models, one must remember that these were the tools, the means to the end of making the finished film. A museum composed only of such things would be like a museum of Michelangelo that only had his brushes and chisels. The solution lit on by the foundation was to make a very audio-visually dynamic space that told the story of Walt's life mainly through interview excerpts and clips from films and TV shows. In place of Disneyland is a tremendously detailed model of the “Disneyland of Walt's imagination,” or the park as it would have been at the moment of his death had every project in development at that time been carried out.

Walt's childhood and Red Cross service during WWI.

Arrival in Hollywood.

Pre-WWII gallery: Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia.

Post-WWII gallery: Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland,
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Song of the South, etc.

The Disneyland that never was.

The final gallery honouring Walt Disney's legacy.

Therefore a trip to the Walt Disney Family Museum involves watching a lot of screens, and one would be well-served to purchase the foundation's documentary from the giftshop, Walt: The Man Behind the Myth. It covers much of the same ground in outlining his life, and utilizes many of the same excerpts and interviews. To those more familiar with how the art itself was created, a lot of the museum's content can seem old news. The museum is rewarding in other ways though. It supplies the aforementioned space for contemplation of the work. Guests have the opportunity to sit down in front of a large screen playing clips of Fantasia interspersed with audio describing the creative process behind it, promoting appreciation for how incredibly innovative it was (I could, under the right conditions, be provoked to argue that Fantasia is the single greatest artistic work of the twentieth century). Perhaps the most meaningful exhibits, however, are those that shed light on the life of the man himself, such as his pair of skis, his collection of polo books (the sport he took up until an accident forced his retirement from it), cans of his favourite foods (chilli and Jell-O!), and the original Lilly Belle scale steam locomotive that plied the backyard of his estate.

Walt's special Oscar for Snow White.

The multiplane camera.

Reconstruction of Walt's apartment in Disneyland.

Some of Walt's miniatures.

Gallery of Walt's home life, hobbies and effects.
(Note the lack of screens in this gallery)

The Lilly Belle engine.

The first model of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Walt's favourite foods.

Walt's skis.

The museum also sports one of the single best Disney-related giftshops anywhere in the world. I discovered to my chagrin that Disneyland was not the place to go for anything and everything Disney. It was a very limited palate of what sold, which these days is anything other than the actual Disney brand. The employee shop at the Walt Disney Studios wasn't much better. We toured the studios only a few months after the Marvel acquisition and already a quarter of the store was dedicated to The Avengers (and another quarter to Brave). Thankfully Disneyland still has the Disney Gallery and its shop, at least in part, which is close enough to the Walt Disney Family Museum. Like the museum proper, the museum giftshop is where we find just Disney. If you love pie-eyed Mickey or pins of relatively obscure animated pictures like Melody Time or a great assortment of hard-to-find Walt-era Disney DVDs, this is a destination for you. The clerks joked that it was movie night at my house as they bagged my stack of finds. Not only that, but it makes available those things beyond itself to which Disney art points. Beside the extensive library of Disney books are copies of the original fairy tales he filmed. I would be remiss if I did not mention the pleasant, helpful staff who display a very obvious reverence of the institution and its subject. Perhaps I am biased because I work in the museums field myself, but a great staff makes a great museum!

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