Hollywood's Oscars Museum, from Ruby Slippers to R2-D2: How to Visit, What to See
To most people, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is known, if it's known at all, as the stuffy group behind the Oscars.
Within Hollywood's mighty film business, though, the Academy is Mount Olympus, where more than 10,000 members, all gods of moviemaking, are invited to gather so they may preserve, honor, and share the heritage of motion pictures throughout the world. The organization is central to a long tradition of collaboration for the sake of an industry.
Founded in 1927, at the tail end of the silent era, the Academy advocated for a motion picture museum right from the start, around the same time the group started handing out awards (with little fanfare at first).
It took almost a century, but the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is finally here.
The location: a stately Los Angeles department store, built five stories tall in the Streamline Moderne style in 1939, a year considered by many the apotheosis in American film. The Academy hollowed out the store, stripped it to its prewar bones, and filled it with 250,000 square feet of lighting-controlled gallery space.
The former May Company store has been painstakingly augmented and converted into a cutting-edge gathering place to learn about film history and methods, see precious artifacts, and watch screenings of material both popular and rare.
The museum is the international tourist attraction dedicated to the movies that Los Angeles has always craved but never had—until now.
From the outside, the Academy Museum's defining feature is the David Geffen Theater, a colossal orb constructed just for the complex. As soon as the sphere rose behind the old department store near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, a little south of the town limits of Hollywood, the nicknames began flying.
"Please. Don’t call this the Death Star," the project's head architect, Renzo Piano, begged the press a week before the museum's grand opening. Piano, who is also responsible for such trendsetting landmarks as The Shard in London and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, had a suggestion with a brighter provenance.
"Call it a dirigible!" he said. "Less than one century ago, this was an airfield."
Well, yes—but about that. It's true that two airstrips once existed at this intersection. But the airfield played a notorious role in a case of early Hollywood's negligence and greed.
DeMille Field (pictured above), where Piano's opus now stands, was the site of an infamous accident in film history.
Ormer Locklear was a dashing daredevil aviator who parlayed his piloting skills into a movie career. In August 1920, while filming the final stunt of The Skywayman during a night shoot, Locklear became disoriented at his controls, thanks to a careless error made by the lighting crew. Consequently, Locklear failed to pull out of a dive and perished in a fiery crash.
Yet the Fox studio decided not to waste the footage, including images of the accident and even the devastated reactions of Locklear's costar, Viola Dana, in the final film. So to review: The studio's mistake caused the accident and then the studio distributed footage of the accident to sell movie tickets.
The true history of Hollywood is dramatic and fantastical, to be sure—but the place also has an ugly side that's usually kept hidden.
But not at this museum. Exhibits don't shy from either side of the industry's split personality of craft and callousness. With equal parts wonder and shame, curators address both the magic and the misery the industry has wrought—and that makes for a riveting visit.
The Academy Museum's southern entrance, facing the Miracle Mile of Wilshire Boulevard and the Petersen Automotive Museum, retains the style of the department store that attracted well-to-do shoppers in the 1940s and '50s.
An extension of the Los Angeles Metro system is slated to bring a new subway station, Wilshire/Fairfax, to the spot right below these doors in 2023.
Historical note: It was at this department store in 1966 where the brilliant screen siren Hedy Lamarr was nabbed for shoplifting beads, greeting cards, eye makeup, and some bikini underwear. Claiming Lamarr had been feeling distressed and distracted, her lawyer persuaded a jury to acquit the star—who was eventually arrested for the same crime in Florida in 1991. (Shoplifting wasn't Lamarr's only side gig: She also invented a technology that helped the Allies win World War II and made Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and mobile phones possible.)
The May Company building (right) is now known as the Saban Building and it contains most of the museum's exhibits.
Piano's "dirigible," left, contains the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater. By day, the facility screens rare and beloved films for visitors; by night, it serves as a setting for movie premieres, live performances, and other events. On top, the sphere has a terrace (more on that later) that adds a rare observation deck to L.A.'s tourist scene.
The exhibition levels are connected by a glassy addition that allows the floors of the former department store to spread out without getting interrupted by escalators.
Presiding over this area is Bruce, the last surviving mechanical shark from Jaws (1975). That film's director, Steven Spielberg, was a major benefactor of the museum.
Exhibits can be explored in any order, but if you want to go chronologically, start on the third level with The Path to Cinema, which traces the entertainment forms that paved the way for movies. This section pulls from the Richard Balzer collection of some 9,000 pre-cinematic optical toys and devices. Sit and watch a re-creation of a "magic lantern" light display that was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of these precious devices on display, the Peacock Sciopticon made by the Pettibone Brothers Manufacturing Company in 1895, might make you admit that the screen at your local, cramped multiplex isn't as small as it could be.
Little-known to most people, the Academy owns millions of artifacts, ranging from scripts to letters to props to photographs. A century's worth of film giants have donated their work to the Academy for preservation, but there was no central place to display those treasures until now.
The Academy's warehouses are bursting with screen history, with room to display only a fraction at the museum. That's why exhibits will change over time. What you see today may be rotated out for something just as fascinating tomorrow. That way, return visits remain rewarding.
Here, Robert F. Boyle's magnificent and meticulously researched painted backdrop depicts Mount Rushmore. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint played multiple scenes in front of the painting in Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece North by Northwest (1959).
The museum's Stories of Cinema section rambles across three levels.
We'll show you some of the highlights, starting with the 1929 program from the Academy's first "Merit Awards," later known as the Oscars. Two films, Wings and Sunrise, were singled out for top praise. Best Actress winner Janet Gaynor was commended not for a single performance but for work in three pictures. Only later did the rules and categories for the awards become more refined and regulated.
The not-so-fancy menu at that early occasion? Chicken broth, fish sautéed in butter, and broiled chicken on toast. The banquet's location, the Roosevelt Hotel, is still a favorite of visitors to Hollywood.
Historic awards statuettes are collected in Stories of Cinema—and it's a top-flight collection. You can see that first 1929 Oscar for Sunrise, the statue handed to Sidney Poitier when he broke the Best Actor color barrier for Lilies of the Field (1963), and Harold Russell's acting award for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), one of two Oscars he took home that night.
Movie fans will notice that the signage at the museum can be sparse and overly basic—here, the text describes the importance of The Best Years of Our Lives but doesn't explain you're looking at the Oscar that Russell sold in 1992 to help pay for his wife's eye surgery. The Academy was none too pleased. Since 1950, Oscar winners have had to sign agreements not to hock their prizes. Technically, they always belong to the Academy.
One vitrine is left vacant on purpose. It represents Hattie McDaniel, who became the first Black person to win an Oscar for playing Mammy in 1939's Gone with the Wind. The actress wasn't even allowed to attend the segregated ceremony with everyone else.
A sign acknowledges that the wherebouts of McDaniel's award are unknown. (Although visitors aren't told so, the prevailing theory is that the award was stolen from Howard University and tossed into the Potomac River as a protest.)
The niche is left empty, the Academy says, because "it would be another fifty years before another Black actress won." But the void is also a powerful reminder of the Academy's many historic shortcomings—and a symbol that the group does not intend to cover its sins with shallow chatter about glamour. Acknowledgments of past injustices appear again and again throughout the museum.
One example of that: The museum displays a 1947 letter McDaniel wrote to power-broker gossip doyenne Hedda Hopper.
"I do not feel that I have degraded my race by the roles that I have played," McDaniel wrote. "People, who can afford it, certainly have maids and butlers. Yet, are these people who work as maids and butlers called Uncle Toms? Truly, a maid or butler in real life is out making an honest dollar, just as we are on the screen. I only hope that the producers will give us Negro actors and actresses more roles, even if there will be those who call us Uncle Toms."
Moviemaking is as complex and nuanced as the rest of American society. While the Academy Museum doesn't explicitly lay out the contours and dynamics of sticky social issues so much as recognize they have always existed, the facility is at least consistent in those acknowledgements (the printed map to the galleries even thanks the indigenous Tongva people who originally lived on the facility's land). And there are enough breadcrumbs of specificity, such as this letter, to point students of production history toward their own conclusions about why exclusion was permitted to happen.
On a lighter note, the first movie spotlighted in the Stories of Cinema section is The Wizard of Oz, which came out in 1939, the same year the structure that now houses the museum was built. This pair of ruby slippers, believed to be used for close-up shots, was acquired in 2012 for the Academy by a team of high-powered donors that included Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg.
Other artifacts from the beloved movie include the Wicked Witch of the West's hat, a Munchkin costume, the Cowardly Lion's headpiece, the Tin Man's oil can (it actually squirted chocolate), a clumsy three-strip Technicolor camera, and two of Dorothy's dresses—one made for color film and one for sepia-toned film.
Once again, the textual explanations aren't as rich as they could be. For example, visitors read that the makeup application process was uncomfortable for the actors, but not that the then-novel method of prefabricated latex pieces transformed and streamlined the industry. Film buffs may find they know more than what's described on the signs—but there's no doubt that the artifacts are the best of the best.
Update: The ruby slippers went off display on September 26, 2022.
You probably don't need a spoiler alert for a movie that came out in 1941, especially since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the best movie of all time, but here's Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud sled—the one that wasn't burned for the film.
To give you an idea of how eclectic the exhibits are, Bruce Lee's nunchucks are in a case a few feet away.
Perhaps the most gratifying gallery—for nerds at least—is the dimly lit Encounters gallery enshrining some of the best puppets and effects costumes of all time. You probably know this little guy is E.T., but did you know that he has what looks like a ridge for a zipper running down his back?
Behind him, meet the actual C-3PO costume from the Star Wars movies—not a copy but the actual suit, chipped and flaking after years of use by actor Anthony Daniels.
More goodies in here: R2-D2, Doug Jones' creature suit from The Shape of Water, a wealth of Jim Henson Company designs from The Dark Crystal, and prosthetic masks and full-body costumes from The Lord of the Rings, Alien, Batman Returns, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Black Panther, and other classics.
More proof that the Academy is not afraid to acknowledge its critics: Cher famously wore this Bob Mackie design to the Academy Awards in 1986 as an act of aggression against the group.
"I had the idea mostly because the Academy didn’t really like me," the performer said much later. "They hated the way I dressed and I had young boyfriends so they thought I wasn’t serious. So I came out and said, 'as you can see, I got my handbook on how to dress like a serious actress'."
Two years later, she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. And now the showgirl dress is on prominent display in a room where landmark acceptance speeches (like Sacheen Littlefeather's refusing Marlon Brando's award for The Godfather in 1973), play on a loop.
Not far from that Cher flair, you can see the announcement card for Best Picture that Faye Dunaway was supposed to read on live television in 2017.
See? Moonlight really did win, not La La Land.
The section on animation has some cool rarities, too, like Pixar's original "color script" storyboard that mapped out the montage from 2009's Up that still makes us sniffle.
These are interchangeable sculpted heads of Jack Skellington used for Tim Burton's stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Nearby, you'll also find Wallace and Gromit, reference models for Disney's Frozen and Pixar's Inside Out, and a historic articulated model that helped Disney animators make Bambi look lifelike. The exhibition doesn't neglect the ways in which animation design and gags often dehumanized marginalized segments of the population, too.
Another area is dedicated to spotlighting directors. The first honoree was Spike Lee. That's the Sal's Pizzeria uniform and Jacke Robinson jersey the writer-director wore when he played Mookie in his breakout hit, Do the Right Thing (1989). Other great filmmakers are now featured in this space on a changing basis.
For the Performance gallery, casting directors busted open their file cabinets to help the museum explain how they do their jobs. Check out these Polaroids of up-and-coming actors from 1990. See anyone you recognize?
The Rolex Gallery is where to find a rotating roster of film talents in focus. The opening exhibition was by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, who curated favorite sequences from his own films.
Like some of the projected material at the museum, you're not always sure what you're looking at or why it has been singled out. But this space is intended to be malleable, and perhaps in time, the Academy will empty out even more of its warehouses to further enrich the core collection.
The fourth floor also has a major space devoted to extensive temporary exhibitions; the inaugural one was dedicated to Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who won the Academy Award for his esteemed 2001 film Spirited Away. Other exhibitions occupy the gallery on a changing basis.
As with so many art museums in the last 20 years, a few areas have been assigned for exhibits that might better be called "experiences."
One, located in Encounters, is a womblike black chamber with a red circular focal point where visitors are meant to lose themselves in the ethereal compositions of Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir—which teaches people that movies can have emotional music, I guess?
Another "original installation" called Behold (by sound designer Ben Burtt) is set in a "cylindrical screening room" that "chronicles the evolution of outer space and futurism in film," according to the museum. You may not be sure what you're supposed to learn, but it's diverting for a minute or two.
The feature that's most attuned to social media sharing is The Oscars Experience (pictured above), where visitors enter a room one by one and approach a podium. There they can briefly hold an actual Oscar (so much heavier than you'd think) to thunderous recorded applause while a camera films and then emails the simulated awards experience to the faux Oscar winner. The whole thing costs $15 additional dollars, which you may not think is worth the price, but there was no shortage of takers in the museum's opening days.
The museum is adamant that it's not just a museum—a claim many institutions make but few deliver on. This one does. There are two theaters where the Academy maintains a robust slate of screenings—check the schedule ahead of time to see if you can pair a visit to the exhibitions with a movie.
It's worth the extra cost because this cinema, the Geffen, was constructed with film heritage in mind. It has one of the few projection rooms in the country that has been designed to safely handle nitrate stock, the film type used for most releases until 1950. Nitrate delivers crisp, rich blacks, but it's fragile and highly flammable—a main reason so many movies from the early days have been lost forever. If you can see a classic movie on nitrate, you're seeing it the way audiences originally experienced the film.
The Geffen can also handle films of various sizes, including 35mm, 70mm, and laser projection, making it a haven for film nuts who otherwise have no other place to see certain rare prints. So don't neglect what's on the screens here—much of it won't be something you can see at home.
The Barbra Streisand Bridge (really) leads from the Saban Building's fifth floor, opposite the Art Deco Fanny's Restaurant, named after classic funny lady Fanny Brice, whose granddaughter was a principal donor (as was Streisand, who portrayed Brice in two movies). The bridge connects to the Dolby Family Terrace on the top level of Piano's sphere. This is a rare scenic overlook in Los Angeles that doesn't require hiking boots. Access is included in the museum admission price.
The Hollywood Sign can be seen in the distance, several miles away, as part of a panorama encompassing much of Hollywood, West Hollywood, and the urban end of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles; $25 adults, $19 seniors over 61, $15 students, 17 and under free) requires advance reservations at AcademyMuseum.org. The calendar of screenings is posted at AcademyMuseum.org/calendar.
The parking fee tops out at $18 after a few hours. Maximize the value by visiting other major attractions nearby, including the world-class Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) next door, the Petersen Automotive Museum across the street, and artist Chris Burden's Instagram-famous Urban Light sculpture of antique streetlamps (pictured above, at the eastern end of the Academy Museum).