As you enter the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, to your left, you will find the Spielberg Family Gallery, home to the first room within the Stories of Cinema, an ongoing exhibition that spans the first three floors of the museum. Here, museum-goers are invited to view a multi-channel installation featuring an international assortment of film clips from the early days of moviemaking to groundbreaking movies of today. It is this exhibit that acts as the museum’s statement of intent—an assertion that films of all genres, time periods, and countries of origin are worthy of celebration.
Initially slated to open in 2020, the Academy Museum was conceived as the center of the film industry to look at the past, present, and future of moviemaking. Unveiled to the public in September 2021, visitors have been able to marvel at the objects from their favorite sci-fi movies, peruse the inspirations of director Spike Lee, and ponder the predictions made by the film community about what lies ahead for the future of cinema.
This past July, the Williamson Gallery summer interns had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the museum led by Exhibitions Curator Jenny He. A graduate of Cinema Studies and Earth/Environmental Sciences from Wesleyan University, she speaks fondly of her college years, her tutelage under renowned film critic, Jeanine Basinger, and how both informed her career path and her approach to curation.
She reminisced: “Jeanine Basinger and Wesleyan University’s Cinema Studies program have really set the foundation for my curatorial practice over the last two decades. When I attended, the program was a combination of film history/theory and filmmaking practice. However, students could not touch a camera until they’ve demonstrated critical analysis and an understanding of film study. I think that’s so key. In order to make good films, you have to know what makes a film good. Jeanine’s philosophy was also rooted in a practical approach. She didn’t teach from a lofty ivory tower, disconnected with the industry and makers. Rather, she reached out to filmmakers (and children of deceased filmmakers), among many others. Jeanine is renowned as a film historian, because she experienced film history and the business side of entertainment firsthand, going through personal archives, talking to people who were on set, and synthesizing it all into her curriculum. As a curator, I see myself as a conduit between artist and audience. Learning from Jeanine taught me how vital that role is.”
As she guided us through the museum, many of our questions centered on issues of accessibility and the industry’s history of marginalization. Rather than shy away from such long-standing critiques of the industry—most recently highlighted through the #OscarsSoWhite campaign—the Academy Museum and its curators keep that context front of mind when formulating and presenting exhibitions.
To hear He tell it, “One of the roles of the museum space is to provide a place for dialogue. There’s certainly a spectrum of thought when it comes to complicated film history—concerning both what is depicted on screen (or not depicted/included on screen) and the personal actions of the filmmaker. But erasure is never beneficial (nor desired by any party). Challenging problematic depictions and celebrating artistic and technical achievements are not mutually exclusive acts. It’s always been the responsibility of curators to interpret and contextualize works on view. Examined under multiple lenses, each film has its own layers of complexities. Therefore, an exhibition is likewise a springboard for larger conversations to be conducted in arenas suitable for meaningful debate and discussion (i.e. symposia, education programs, and other similar initiatives).”
Speaking for myself, coming away from our tour with He’s insights, I was struck by the openness to addressing the institutional barriers at play for as long as movies have been made. The context surrounding said barriers can instead be used to spark critical questions about how film as a medium has functioned to both uphold and subvert hegemonic ideals. As I thought about curating my own virtual exhibition, Star Machine: Power and Politics of Women in 1930s Hollywood, the same questions I had in the museum were at the forefront. How are these film images and messages representative of society during a specific moment in time? What can we learn by examining what/who was excluded as much as what/who was included?
Prior to the museum’s opening, many articles I read expressed a common worry—that the site would solely preserve the past. Through the dedicated work of those like Jenny He, the Academy Museum serves as a bridge between past, present, and future, compelling us to evaluate film’s legacy in order to inform the growth and change that needs to happen.
-Gigi Hume SC ‘23, 2022 Summer Wilson Arts Administration Intern