So you’re putting together a movie museum. You’ve picked out feature-length films and short clips for its theaters and walls, but how do you go about filling all of the rest of the space—particularly with, say, a one-of-a-kind prop from the 1940s?
For the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, it’s a mix of savvy acquisitions and connections with some very generous filmmaker friends. “The process goes both ways,” explains Doris Berger, senior director of curatorial affairs. “We have an unparalleled collection as the Academy. The [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’] Margaret Herrick Library has been collecting over decades: film posters, drawings, costume design drawings, photographs. The Academy Museum has been collecting—for about one decade—three-dimensional objects such as costumes and props and makeup kits and cameras. And so we draw on our own collection, as well as connect with filmmakers who collect movie memorabilia.”
We caught up with Berger to find out how five of the most significant pieces on display at the Academy Museum worked their way into the collection, and why they’re so meaningful.
Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Among the untold number of ruby slippers made for The Wizard of Oz, only four are known to have survived. And this, the Academy believes, is the pair—“a Holy Grail of American cinema,” as Berger puts it—that was used in close-up shots and for those iconic heel clicks.
It was one of the splashiest initial acquisitions for the museum, which purchased them in 2012 for an undisclosed sum with help from a group of Hollywood investors led by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
For Berger, they’re way more than just sparkly shoes. “There’s a symbolic meaning for all of us that we relate to and remember when Dorothy says ‘there’s no place like home’ and clicks her heels and gets transported [back home],” she says. “This is really powerful, and the ruby slippers are a symbol for that.”
The Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane (1941)
Only one balsa wood Rosebud-emblazoned sled from Orson Welles’s landmark film has survived, and it now belongs to the Academy. But before that, it had actually been a part of Steven Spielberg’s personal collection, after he rescued it from RKO storage in a 1982 auction. After time spent at his home and office, Spielberg opted to donate it to the Academy, telling the BBC in very Indiana Jones-like fashion, “it belongs in a museum.”
As for the rest of the sled’s journey, Berger explains: “That was such a surprise—first of all, that it still exists. There were three sleds made for the film Citizen Kane. Orson Welles didn’t like the first take when the sled was thrown into the furnace, so the first prop burned. The second take was pleasing to Orson Welles, so luckily that worked, so a third sled survived. And Steven Spielberg had this in his collection and so we are fortunate enough to be able to show a real Rosebud prop in our vignette about Citizen Kane.”
A full-body E.T. animatronic from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Another piece from Spielberg’s collection, this full-body animatronic was one of only three created for the wondrous 1982 film. And though puppet master Carlo Rambaldi’s creation now sits statically behind glass, E.T. looks just as endearing as he did on the silver screen.
That’s particularly the case for Berger: E.T. was the first film she saw on the big screen, and “to see E.T. live, so to speak, as a real object was very moving to me.” That impact has only been heightened since she’s rewatched the film. “You create an additional connection to a movie, I think, after you see objects that were featured in a film,” she says. “That’s true for E.T., but it’s true for any other film.”
Casting cards from Real Women Have Curves (2002)
As the Academy Museum was putting together its gallery on Real Women Have Curves, curator Sofia Serrano built a good enough rapport with the film’s director, Patricia Cardoso, that she decided to donate some of her private belongings into the Academy’s Archives: hand-notated Polaroids and note cards on the process that led to casting stars Lupe Ontiveros and America Ferrera (in her first acting role).
The other half of the gallery, meanwhile, focuses on “how Boyle Heights played a significant role in that film,” Berger says. “It’s almost like a character, the location.”
The Mount Rushmore backdrop from North by Northwest (1959)
The museum planned on simply borrowing this 30-foot-tall painting for its exhibition on movie backdrops. But Culver City’s J.C. Backings, which had been storing the Alfred Hitchcock film prop, decided to donate it instead.
Its permanent place at the museum is probably for the better: Berger says it took about 20 people to roll, unroll and carry the painting in from the gallery’s balcony in order to put it on display.
Though the wall-covering painting is undeniably the focus of attention, the rest of the gallery tells a much more complicated story of its setting’s origin. “We are looking into the technology of filmmaking, to create awareness of this beautiful craft,” explains Berger. “[But also] we embrace the inclusion aspect of it, and complicated histories. On the one hand the painting shows Mount Rushmore, and on the other it’s this landscape, Black Hills—and it’s really difficult for Lakota Native American tribes for this land to be desecrated with carved figures. So we are telling that story of a cultural history that is a contested image at the same time we also celebrate the art of backdrop painting.”