Inside the New Academy Museum, From the Barbra Streisand Bridge to the 1,000-Seat David Geffen Theater

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Dolby Family Terrace Rendering - Publicity - H 2020
Renzo Piano Building Workshop/Academy Museum Foundation/Image from Cristiano Zaccaria

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures lifted the curtains to show what it has in store ahead of its opening later this year.

On the Friday of Oscar weekend, the Academy sneaked a peek at its other big 2020 event — the eventual opening of the Academy Museum later this year.

"This museum belongs to everyone," said newly appointed Academy Museum Director Bill Kramer as press gathered inside what will be the museum’s main lobby in the Saban Building at the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. "We want to tell stories from many points of view."

Kramer said the museum construction is nearly finished and its fundraising goals are 95 percent met, with more than $368 million in pledges and cash raised. The Academy plans to reveal an opening date very soon, with all signs pointing to a high-profile, Oscar telecast announcement Sunday. 

Before it drops that news, the Academy led press through the museum’s key spaces, christened with the familiar names of noteworthy Hollywood donors.

Visitors could sit in the plush, red 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, which was being kept chilly to facilitate the installation of laser projection, and walk across the glass Barbra Streisand Bridge, which connects the concrete 1939 Saban Building (formerly the May Company Building) to architect Renzo Piano’s spherical glass addition, with its sweeping Hollywood Hills views. (In a flaw that would seem to vex the notoriously perfectionistic Streisand, her bridge did have a crack.)

Like the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in its Beverly Hills headquarters, the David Geffen Theater, which is equipped to screen 35mm, 70mm, digital laser and nitrate prints, seems designed more for elegant cinema than for popcorn-chomping moviegoing, and can be accessed from the museum's north entrance that is designed to host star-studded premieres. There are no cup holders or reclining seats and a sign outside the theater warns that only water is allowed inside.

Evidence that this is still a construction site abounds — plastic sheeting covers the green seats inside the 288-seat Ted Mann Theater, where Federico Fellini and Hayao Miyazaki retrospectives will screen.

Outside the fourth floor Katzenberg galleries, which will house future exhibitions on Miyazaki's animated Studio Ghibli films — the first exhibition in the space — and a showcase of black cinema from 1900 to 1970, construction crews are installing shades on the shingled glass panels of the sphere, built with materials that have been shipped in from Austria.

Inclusion has been a challenging issue for the Academy, which heads into the Oscars on Sunday with only one acting nomination for a person of color and no directing nominations for a woman. But the staff of the Academy Museum seem eager to signal that their exhibitions will tackle even unsavory aspects of Hollywood’s past, including its exclusionary history. "It’s important for us to...not shy away from difficult moments in film history," says Doris Berger, head of curatorial affairs. "That includes people who were excluded from Hollywood."

The Academy Museum, an idea floated since the earliest days of the 92-year-old organization, has had a long path to completion. The $388 million project, which was first announced in 2012, was initially slated to cost $250 million and open in 2017, but it has been delayed several times due to construction problems, including finding a prehistoric sloth fossil under the building and earthquake proofing Piano’s complex dome. In October, Kramer, who had served as managing director of development and external relations, was named director of the museum after previous director Kerry Brougher resigned in August.

The former department store that will house galleries has had a sprucing up — 35 percent of the 300,000 gold leaf mosaic tiles on its cylinder edifice have been replaced with tiles from their original manufacturer, Venetian company Orsoni. But much remains unadorned, including industrial-style open ceilings and exposed concrete columns, once covered in wood, which still show the wood grain imprint.

The museum’s collection will include examples of technology, like the original Steadicam; costume design, like the headdress Greta Garbo wore in 1931’s Mata Hari and Bela Lugosi's cape from 1931's Dracula; production design, like the stone tablet props from 1956’s The Ten Commandments; and makeup and hairstyling objects, like special effects artist Dick Smith’s molds from The Godfather (1972), The Exorcist (1973) and Deer Hunter (1978).

One of the exhibits will use 1939's Wizard of Oz as a vehicle to demonstrate the art of filmmaking, accented by a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers that were worn by Judy Garland.

Hollywood isn’t just paying for this museum — it’s also going to be shaping it, curators say. On the third floor galleries, guest curators will include filmmakers whose names everyday moviegoers will recognize, according to the museum’s exhibitions curator Jenny He, with a focus on science fiction and fantasy. He says, “We want to remind you why you go to the movies.”