Inside the Walt Disney Family Museum

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Family Museum

Photo by Jim Smith, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

One year ago this month, the Walt Disney Family Museum, dedicated to the life and achievements of Walt Disney (1901-1966), opened in San Francisco to positive reviews. Praise continues to be lavished upon the stunningly-designed, $110 million high-tech museum, which has become a top San Francisco tourist attraction.

The Disney family established the museum to educate the public about Walt Disney the man, whose eponymous company has morphed into a global entertainment and media colossus in the five decades since his death in 1966. “My father has one of the most well-known names around the world,” said his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, “but as the Disney ‘brand’ has grown, the man has become lost.”

A petite, elegant woman, Diane inherited her father’s tenacity, energy, and drive. Seven years ago, she and the family acquired three historic red-brick former US Army barracks in San Francisco’s wooded Presidio, on an enviable site overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. The barracks, constructed at the end of the 19th century, were dusty, plaster-strewn shells when Diane gave me a personal tour of the interior in 2005. As I watched her enthusiastically point out where the museum’s future galleries would be located, I could not help but recall her father on his 1950s TV show, pointing to Anaheim’s orange groves and explaining to America’s nascent television audience where Disneyland’s wonderful attractions would eventually exist.

Having secured the museum’s site, the family faced a significant challenge: how to frame a narrative that would do justice to one of the most influential figures of 20th century popular culture, and who has already been the subject of numerous biographies, ranging from hagiography to hatchet jobs. Diane organized teams of advisors, including building preservationists, architects, designers, film/animation historians and authors (including myself).

Family Museum

A boy and his grandmother looking at the model of the Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination. Photo by Jim Spirakis, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum

San Francisco architects Page & Turnbull took on the task of retrofitting and expanding the historic landmark buildings within the strict guidelines of the Presidio Trust. New York’s Rockwell Group was chosen to create 24,000 square feet of exhibition space in ten permanent galleries. Rockwell’s design magicians, who consider “dreaming” to be “one of our most important missions,” intently listened and absorbed the advisors’ knowledge of all-things-Disney in brainstorming sessions. Everyone struggled with how best to tell, in a museum setting, the real story of the legendary Walt Disney.

Two years before the opening, Richard Benefield, then the Deputy Director of the Harvard Art Museum, was named the Disney Museum’s Founding Executive Director. This past summer, I visited the finished museum for the first time when I presented an illustrated lecture on my new book, Two Guys Named Joe, in the museum’s jewel-box of a theatre.

Family Museum

The Theater at The WDFMuseum. Photo by Cesar Rubio, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Indeed, one might apply the term “jewel-box” to the entire museum, as its interactive exhibits, and floor space have been crafted to integrate video, rare artworks, family photographs, home movies, and historic artifacts. Through all of them, Walt Disney comes across as a real person with human foibles, not an airbrushed corporate image. Timed-entry tickets enable visitors to explore at their leisure, walk, gawk, touch, manipulate, view, and hear information in direct, well-organized ways. Many will need to return again because there is such a wealth of information to process, and it is presented in a way that respects both the subject of the museum and the visitor.

Not surprisingly, WDFM has many treasures to gladden a Disney fan’s heart, such as the earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse; an original two-story multiplane camera (which enabled Disney to add the illusion of depth to Bambi’s forest and Peter Pan’s flight to Neverland) and its interactive model, which visitors can operate themselves; a hologram of Dick Van Dyke relating his favorite memories making Mary Poppins; a huge 160-square-foot Disneyland working model (built at a cost of a million dollars); sound-effects devices for visitors to add their own soundtracks to classic Disney films.

Family Museum

A little girl reaches up to touch the Steamboat Willie wall in Gallery 2. Photo by Jim Spirakis, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum

One particular example of the thoroughness with which the museum has been designed is the Herman Schultheis Notebook, a rare document written by an obscure Disney technician in the late 1930s that is the only extant record of how many of the special visual effects were created in early Disney features, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. [See Mar/Apr 1996 Print magazine: “Secrets of Disney’s Special Effects: The Schultheis Notebooks.”]

Although it is an item of special interest to film historians and students of special effects, the notebook is now easily accessible to everyone, thanks to the museum’s interactive digital installation that allows visitors to study each page, zoom in on photos, drawings and text, and view related film excerpts. It takes you directly back to the heady days of Disney’s first success in feature animation, and allows visitors to experience the thrill of creativity and discovery that inspired the people who worked with Walt.

Walt’s voice is, in fact, heard throughout the galleries in archival recordings, and he and co-workers and family are a constant presence on 200 video monitors and displays.

Family Museum

Photo by Jim Smith, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Rockwell’s overall design concept fuses multiple sensory elements on an unprecedented scale. I was constantly impressed by the thinking behind the planning; the decisions the planning team made that, through juxtaposing imagery, sound, and space, evokes a physical or psychological feeling in visitors of a distant event or environment.

One example: the ingenious transition from the first-floor gallery featuring Walt’s beginnings in Kansas City, where he was raised and first experimented with filmmaking, to the upstairs gallery representing his arrival in 1923 in Los Angeles, where his career took off. You enter a small elevator paneled in dark wood with, windows and
curtains like a 1920s train parlor car, similar to one that Walt traveled in; during the short ride upstairs his voice describes that journey west. The elevator/train’s ambience and the sensation of actually moving from one place to another takes visitors back nearly 90 years on a physical and time trip. When the door opens, the bright lights of long-ago LA greet us, symbolized by the iconic “Hollywoodland” sign (erected in 1923 and later shortened to “Hollywood”). Video monitors shaped to fit within the sign’s letters show movie clips of silent movie stars.

Another example: Gallery 8, “Walt + the Natural World,” concentrates on the nature documentaries produced in the 1940s and ’50s with film excerpts embedded in a wall of video monitors. Turning around, visitors find themselves peering through a giant window at a stunning view of the Presidio forests and San Francisco Bay, a breathtaking in-the-moment connection to the nature celebrated in the films.

Family Museum

The last two galleries, “The 1950s + 1960s: The Big Screen and Beyond” and “December 15, 1966,” deal with the enormous expansion of Walt’s world in the last two decades of his life into television, live-action movies, and theme parks, and the world’s reaction to his untimely death. The final gallery displays the many letters, telegrams, editorials, as media broadcasts of Walt’s death on period radios and television monitors fade in and out. Finally, a multitude of images from all areas of Walt’s life flash on a video wall, eventually flicker and disappear leaving only whiteness. It is a moving evocation of life’s brevity, and how much an individual can accomplish during his/her short time on earth. White also reminds one of the blank page, the place where creativity begins.

In that sense, this final room can be seen as an inspiration and a challenge to the viewer. To me, the Walt Disney Family Museum is as visionary as the man it honors. It feels like the museum of the future today—an immersive, entertaining, and inspirational learning experience for all ages, worthy of emulation by other museum curators, directors, designers and architects. A singular person’s life story is imaginatively revealed in intimate and candid detail. It is a reintroduction to a famous man and his accomplishments that I thought I knew well.

“We’re giving people the opportunity to know him, to know what he was really like,” Diane Disney Miller told the Chicago Sun-Times. Mission accomplished.

[Be sure to read John’s comprehensive introduction to the vibrant Irish animation scene in the October issue of Print.]