‘Experience a living history:’ Academy Museum and its commitment to diversity and inclusion

A panel discussion with museum staff explored themes of diversity in their exhibits and the film industry at large.

A photo of panelists on stage at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

The newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is more than a home for Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the droids from “Star Wars.” It’s an environment that will foster meaningful dialogues about celebrating, analyzing and contextualizing cinema.

“We want to ensure that we are taking an honest, inclusive and diverse look at our history, that we create a safe space for complicated, hard conversations, and that we welcome the community into those conversations,” said Bill Kramer at the event. Kramer is director and president of the museum.

The museum hosted a panel discussion called “Creating a More Inclusive Museum” on Oct. 1, the day after it opened to the public. The panel spoke about the challenges and opportunities that come with creating a museum, making inclusion and diversity a priority, and specific exhibits that meet that priority.

The panelists were Effie Brown and Heather Rae, prominent film and television producers and members of the museum’s Inclusion Advisory Committee (IAC), and Doris Berger and Jaqueline Stewart, who hold positions in the curatorial and programming teams at the museum, respectively.

While speaking about the inception of the inclusion advisory committee, Brown noted that she was first asked about an exhibit featuring “Birth of a Nation,” a film notorious for its role in the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The initial exhibit did not have the proper context or information about its harmful impacts, she said. The advisory committee was able to talk with the museum staff and create more thoughtful and inclusive exhibits.

“We [the IAC] walked through the exhibits hand-in-hand with the curatorial staff. They were champions of inclusion and made sure that we were doing this the right way. They met our commitment and passion toe-to-toe,” she said at the event.

The panelists spoke about the difficulties of approaching their work and strategizing to create an inclusive museum for an industry that has an exclusionary past. At one point in development, the committee discussed dedicating an exhibit to cinema’s exclusionary and harmful past, but after deliberation, they found it was best to not include “an exhibit of shame.” Instead the group decided to “thread inclusion and context through the entire museum.”

“We had to come to some fundamental truths, such as the fact that in many ways, the film industry has been a systemic expression of white supremacy,” Rae said.

The panelists recognized that confronting the darker history of cinema can be challenging for some people. They felt that it was important to include content about blackface or exaggerated racial stereotypes, but didn’t want to make any museum visitors uncomfortable or upset.

“We didn’t want to have it in your face. We are presenting these complicated histories in a manner that is often in a vitrine, where you decide if you want to engage in the content because you want to learn more,” Berger said.

The event itself was a testament to the museum’s commitment to being accessible and welcoming to all. The event began with a land acknowledgement by Virginia Carmelo, a descendant of the Indigenous Tongva tribe. An ASL interpreter was on stage for the entire event.

“This discussion highlighted the challenges of bringing so many voices together to create something cohesive,” said Luci Marzola, an attendee of the event and a part-time researcher for the museum. “There’s some really great stuff in the museum. I think they do a great job of curating and contextualizing, but there’s definitely room for more stories.”

In a one-on-one conversation with Rae, she said, “My relationship with museums has always been to have one foot out the door because museums are so dead. This museum, though, has vitality to it and people can come in and experience a living history.”

Tickets for the museum are available online, with a discount for college students, for those who want to experience this “living history” for themselves.