STORIES IN MOTION: INTRODUCING THE ACADEMY MUSEUM
Brian Butterfield and Kulapat Yantrasast share the design thinking behind the Stories of Cinema galleries at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is a museum like no other. While cultural institutions across the world are investigating the possibilities for immersive experiences, the Academy Museum is dedicated to a medium which is immersive in its own right: cinema.
But how to translate the experience of cinema to the museum context? And how to illuminate the multiple moving parts behind the scenes, revealing the art, science, and technology of filmmaking, as well as the history of the Academy as an institution? That was our challenge when designing the Stories of Cinema galleries, the core exhibition on view across three floors of the museum.
It was a challenge that required the full toolbox of the WHY Museums Workshop, acting as a translator of the curators’ ambitions and as a facilitator connecting a team of specialists in disciplines ranging from motion graphics to inclusive audio technology. The gallery spaces needed to showcase the Academy’s collection in all its glory – including Dorothy’s sparkling Ruby Slippers and the glitzy jumpsuit from Rocketman – while also allowing for flexibility as the medium of cinema develops in real time. Most importantly, the spaces would set the stage for the many stories and perspectives which have shaped the course of cinema history, inviting visitors to map their own stories of cinema based on personal interests, memories, and life experiences.
The process of designing the galleries was simultaneously specific to the context and indicative of the ways museums are rapidly evolving. In discussion with Brian Butterfield, Director of WHY’s Museums Workshop, and Kulapat Yantrasast, WHY’s Creative Director, we reflect on some of the key principles of the design.
The Stories of Cinema galleries connect museum visitors to the celebratory and complex international history of motion pictures. The perspective of a makeup artist preparing an actor for the camera is very different from that of an animator shaping claymation figures; the same script will be interpreted in many different ways when read by a casting agent, a location scout, or a cinematographer. Through intensive dialogue and a process of co-creation over several years, WHY worked with the curatorial team — connecting to all 17 branches of the Academy — to translate their vision into architectural form, designing the spatial and experiential equivalents of those multiple refracting viewpoints.
The stories that are told – whether via screens or objects – do not shy away from controversial issues, often acknowledging the bias and discrimination that has shaped cinema history. “The museum’s progressive stance on diversity and representation has been at the forefront of the program and our shared agenda as designers,” says Kulapat. “That candid transparency is so important if we’re going to start to tell better stories, stories which create a sense of understanding and empathy between the people of many different backgrounds who visit the museum.”
“As an institution, if you want to have a voice outside your own walls and broaden your reach and relevance in the current moment, the gallery spaces need to reflect that mission,” says Brian. “At WHY, we take that very seriously – how can we use all the techniques available to us, not only as architects or exhibition designers, but also as cultural strategists, technologists, as facilitators of different expertise.” Perhaps surprisingly, that process requires temporarily forgetting our role as designers and problem-solvers. Instead, we return to who we are beyond the scope of the project: museum visitors and art lovers, first and foremost.
CINEMA IS A COLLECTIVE
Cinema is collective, generating shared cultural references and memories. That simple fact informs the WHY Museums Workshop’s approach to inclusive design: the essential recognition that a museum should provide layers of experiences, compassionately addressing the diverse needs of individuals of different generations, capacities, cultures, and interests.
“The galleries are designed to be equally enjoyable for the film buff who wants to inspect every label, and the visitor who wants to pop in for half an hour, perhaps just to immerse themselves in the cinematic atmosphere of the Spielberg Gallery when they come to meet a friend for lunch at Fanny’s. It’s all there to be accessed, you can take and combine in a way that makes sense to you,” says Brian.
Inclusive design is all about removing barriers, and we wanted to ensure that the galleries would be accessible for individuals of varying physical capabilities. Rather than simply meeting museum standards and regulations, our goal was to amplify the experience for those who might not otherwise have access to the full sensory delight of cinema. A particular emphasis was placed on inclusive audio design, not only integrating and directing screen-specific audio for T-coil hearing aid users, but in many cases designing custom mixes to recreate the sonic environment.
Inclusive design should also be considered at a societal and cultural level, acknowledging the invisible barriers that may make some visitors feel excluded. “People come here to see themselves in these spaces – to share a cultural currency,” says Kulapat. “That sense of belonging, of being at home, is the starting point for being able to connect with people from other cultures and backgrounds. For me, part of the magic of cinema is that feeling of being comfortable enough to immerse yourself in another world – to live the stories of others and try on other minds.”
We’ve designed the galleries as a moveable feast, with each exhibit intended to focus attention and inspire curiosity. The museum experience is not merely delivered to the visitor; it’s something they’re actively involved in, participating through full-sensory engagement.
Directed audio plays an important role in refining focus and preventing a sonic cacophony as visitors move between exhibits. “The sound projected by the speakers is pinpointed to a specific location in relation to a screen or object,” Brian explains. “Fabrics are applied throughout the spaces – on ceilings, floors, walls, gallery furniture – acting as acoustic baffles and creating a different sound signature from room to room.” The effect indirectly evokes the cinematic sense of being cocooned in a comfortable environment of light and sound, and fabrics often take the form of undulating stage curtains to suggest that theatrical feeling of suspense and anticipation.
In the immersive sound chamber dedicated to the experimental film scores of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, that relationship between sight and sound is reversed. As visitors sit and listen in near-darkness, a pulsing red light – reminiscent of Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – acts as a meditative focus point that encourages full surrender to the sonic surroundings. Other subtle visual elements include a consistent graphic design language applied throughout the spaces – from exhibit labels to dramatic large-scale environmental graphics and wayfinding. The selected typeface – Cinetype – is inspired by the historical process of laser etching film on subtitling machines, and the framing of text and graphics is based on the original four-by-three Academy ratio used by projectionists in the early days of movie making.
Whether explicit or subliminal, every element of design intentionally reinforces the cinematic atmosphere –an atmosphere which is not confined to a single static space, but transforms and adapts with each new gallery.
RHYTHMS OF EXPERIENCE
Strategies of focused attention and curatorial direction are balanced by encouraging visitors to map their own path and move at their own pace. “There’s a rhythm to it,” says Brian. “You’ll find that there’s an ebb and a flow to the elements of each gallery, just like a good story.” One important consideration was to create a counterpoint between the high sensory and immersive environments, in relation to more didactic and information-rich gallery spaces. “At the same time, we didn’t want to make too strict a distinction. Visitors should be able to transition seamlessly from receiving information via a screen or a sound-chamber, to reading a text on a wall, or listening to an expert explain their craft.”
The process of navigating the spaces should also feel like a journey that builds, punctuated by moments of respite where visitors can rest and allow new ideas and images to settle. Strategically placed furniture (such as the custom WHY-designed crimson velvet couch in the circular Oscars gallery) is consistent with the storytelling of each space, and care is taken to reorient the visitor within the context of the building as a whole. The circular room and illuminated art deco ceiling of the Oscars gallery is a clue to its location within the iconic gold cylinder of the Streamline Moderne May Company building at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax.
The galleries are intended to harmonize with Renzo Piano’s design for the museum at large. “From the moment of standing in Renzo’s piazza, to the experience of walking into the lobby under the mezzanine leading to the Geffen Theater, and then entering the ground floor gallery, visitors will feel that powerful sense of expansion and compression which characterizes the museum,” says Brian. “Once you’re contained within the enclosed environment of the upper-level galleries, you should still have that sense of expansiveness, of being drawn forwards on a journey.” Strong sightlines play an important role in generating the feeling of forwards movement, opening opportunities for surprise discoveries and narrative foreshadowing. “There’s a degree of transparency and a visual awareness between galleries,” says Brian. “For instance, when you’re in the Significant Movies and Movie Artists galleries, there’s a glass window that reveals famous – and infamous – gowns worn to the Oscars over the year in the Academy Awards History gallery beyond So you know that there’s an exhibit quite different in nature on the other side of the wall. You’re not sure how you’re going to get there, but you’re compelled to keep moving, you follow your curiosity.”
In a traditional cinema environment, the audience is seated in place while images flicker across the screen. Here, the visitors – the participants – are the creators, a collective in motion, generating their own stories and shaping their own interpretations as they go.
That journey of observing, immersing, and reimagining actively shapes the visitor experience and the ethos of the museum. Far from seeking to enshrine the past, the Academy Museum is a site of flux: an intersection of the past, the present, and a future which may take any direction. On leaving the Stories of Cinema galleries, visitors find themselves in a space dedicated to speculations on the future of cinema; a series of open questions, a gallery in the making.
Those open questions pose a challenge and an invitation to an industry that has long expanded beyond the Hollywood Hills, embracing a spectrum from Bollywood sagas to Tik Tok videos. By sharing the complex and interconnected Stories of Cinema, the museum will have a direct impact on the ongoing evolution of the art, science, and industry of movie making. We’re glad to have played out part as spatial storytellers, creating a central network of cinematic narratives: the starting point for all that is to come.
The Stories of Cinema galleries were designed as part of a multi-disciplinary collaboration between the WHY Museums Workshop and a team of specialist consultants including: Aeracoustics, Ampetronic, ATK Audiotek, Available Light, Buro Happold, Cinnabar, Dolby, Electrosonic, Jaffe Holden, GenPop, HYPNO, INFO.CO, Skywalker Sound, Zone Display Cases.