Rockwell Group, the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco opened to little buzz." /> Rockwell Group, the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco opened to little buzz." />
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Alexandra Lange

Disney, Without Sneering


My favorite scene in all of Disney is in Cinderella, when the mice and birds and other beasties dress Cinderella for the ball. It is the loveliest makeover scene, all the better for being almost wordless. A suggestion of the origin of the idea for this scene appears in the third gallery at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco: a pagan spring goddess with long blonde hair, two birds bearing a floral wreath to her head. The museum, designed by Rockwell Group and invisibly inserted into one of a row of five identical brick barracks at the Presidio, opened last fall to a fair amount of press but, as far as I can tell, little buzz.

Which is a real shame, because the place is amazing, both for the history of Disney’s career, and for the design of the exhibitions. I can’t write a proper review of the WDFM, since one of my oldest friends works there, and I toured with a cranky toddler, but I think I saw enough to recommend it. The best rooms manage to showcase the latest in digital interactive technology alongside old-fashioned virtuoso illustration, and make both look wonderful. It is something to make over 1000 screens not dominate a fabulous miscellany of antique toys, hand-drawn character sketches, and vintage photos.

The first gallery should be the most boring: Walt Disney before cartoons. It is dressed in period crimson, beginning with a wallpapered panel of sepia photos (all the Disney family photos to come will be on wallpaper, the patterns changing to subtly signal the decade) and a real WWI ambulance. But the history of Walt’s early working life is told in a series of animated films that look like they were made with paper dolls, the kind roughly articulated with grommets. These play on small screens, above real model trains that come and go, animating the display. A paste-up of Walt’s early political cartoons is on a third wall, in all their impenetrable timeliness. (The Rockwell site has few, but good images of the rooms: click Projects, Culture, WDFM.)

Upstairs, there’s an old tyme movie poster display of the Alice films, cute shorts with cute girls playing “Alice” that sometimes combined live action and animation. Then a whole gridded wall of early Mickey sketches, some of which are actually moving pictures, early shorts showing the mouse wrangling with cars, trains, plows and other mechanical impediments (all on YouTube). This is where the museum becomes something you could easily show your kids, while not being directed at them. More screens await: the Skeleton Dance, the “color girls” painting the cels, a whole room devoted to the breakthrough that was Snow White. I particularly loved the memo about the names of the original dwarfs, describing their characteristics and real-world models (W.C. Fields). Dopey (I think) is pencilled in as a last-minute inspiration. And on and on, through strikes, South America, and some great three-way projections showing scenes from films like Peter Pan, the original theme art, and the real people filmed to provide models for the animators. Collaborators are not slighted.

My big question about the design is when they museum chose architecture instead of just installation, infilling the court of the U-shape barracks with a clear glass cube. That seems fine as an way to get extra square-footage, but within the cube Rockwell chose to break from the small gallery format and make a spiraling ramp, leading the visitor toward the inevitable flashy Florida moment. The WDFM suddenly turns into a spectacle, which may be appropriate to the history, but is jarring to the mood. Suddenly the screens dominate, as Mary Poppins and Polyanna dart at you from the corners of the room. I could also have done without the memorial off-ramp, a white curved wall with Walt Disney’s dates and a quote that ushers you out the door to the shop.

The WDFM apparently realizes they have a bit of a marketing problem. The Presidio’s landmark statutes allow it only a modest, black on white sign directly in front of their building, one of a row of four identical brick barracks. Their mark (on a couple of washed-out orange banners) is banal, and features irregular letterspacing of the kind that makes graphic designers scream in pain. None of my Bay Area friends had heard of the WDFM, and as I tried to describe it they all sneered/rolled their eyes/made cryogenics jokes. No, no, I explained, this is the Disney family, not the Disney Corporation. So they don’t mention his anti-Semitism? I kind of gave up. This is why it is nice to have a blog.

I sincerely hope the museum can find a way to target the lovers of technology, animation, American history, American futurism (the scale model of Disneyland, BTW, is amazing), children’s literature, illustration—I could go on—that will love the permanent exhibitions. Among the best artwork on the walls is that of Mary Blair, a Disney artist already big enough in Japan to have a solo show and catalog. Her work on It’s A Small World in the mid-sixties is deeply enmeshed with the aesthetics of California mid-century design and Alexander Girard and even the Nut Tree. There is a polished terrazzo floor on the lower level of the museum poured with a checkerboard of her sun, flower, shield designs that is one of the most gorgeous pieces of interior design I have recently seen… and I couldn’t find an image online.

There will soon be rotating, topical exhibits in the galleries as well, including an upcoming one on Peter Pan to coincide with a new production in the round in San Francisco. Sounds amazing. Peter Pan was my first Broadway show. My Omi got us tickets at the front of the balcony, so when Peter flew out into the audience s/he was about five feet away. But what they will have to do to Ugg-A-Wugg to make it singable in 2010?



Posted in: Museums

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Alexandra Lange Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

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