Post by David Zanolla
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so our family visited the Museum of Science and Industry quite often. Over the years, we enjoyed many special touring exhibits revolving around subjects such as The Muppets and artifacts of the Titanic. Needless to say, when D23 contacted The DIS/wdwinfo.com and asked if there was anyone in the Chicagoland area that would cover the media opening of their new “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives” exhibit, I jumped at the chance. The special exhibit, which will run through May 4, 2014, is being presented by Disney’s official fan club, D23. Appropriately, this special collection made its debut on October 16th, the 90th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, so it seems fitting that treasured items in his company’s archives would be on display in the same area where it all began.
It is worth noting that the Museum of Science and Industry is an amazing destination in and of itself, in part due to the focus on hands-on/interactive experiences throughout the building. The temporary addition of this exhibit only raises the incentive for anyone within driving distance to plan a visit. The exhibit, presented by D23, only costs an additional $9 for adults and $7 for children (ages 3-11). Museum and D23 Gold and Silver Members get special discounted pricing. All tickets can be purchased at www.msichicago.org.
The exhibit does an admirable job of showcasing artifacts from many different areas of the company’s history. There are the expected pieces from early in Walt’s life and career, but those items just scratch the surface of the over 300 ‘treasures’ from the Disney Archives. The exhibit space is divided into the following categories:
- The Early Years
- Early Hollywood
- Animation Tools & Techniques
- Walt: Showman of the World
- Mary Poppins
- Theme Parks
- Disney Today
- Animation Academy
It’s no secret that the Walt Disney Company is an organization with storytelling at its foundation. When asked of the underlying story of this museum experience, Nicholas Vega, Manager, Collections & Exhibits at the Walt Disney Archives, said, “It comes down to the idea and notion of innovation. Walt, during his lifetime, and now even the Company today always wanted to push that border and not be afraid to take risks.” He continued, “When you have the time to read the labels and stand back and look at each vignette for what they are, [whether] individual vignettes of Walt’s office or the animator’s desk or [a section on] live action, and you string them together, you can see that they’re all held together by that string of innovation.” I can confirm that the theme of innovation, both by Walt Disney himself and the company which bears his name, has made its way into this exhibit in a grand way.
Specifically, as you enter the Early Hollywood section, you come across the original telegram Walt sent to his brother Roy after losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This item is part of a foundational story of the Walt Disney Company and it’s only feet in front of every visitor. Some may criticize this exhibit by saying something along the lines of, “many of these things have been on display before.” And while that may be true (specifically at the Reagan President Library this past summer), they are coming to the Midwest where people who may have never visited either theme park coast can have the opportunity to see them up close. As a fan of Disney history (I teach a collegiate course on the culture of the Disney theme parks), this exhibit delivered. My two sons (7 and 5) love Disney history as well and I cannot wait to bring them back to visit this amazing collection. It is the perfect setup to let the individual pieces tell the story of the Company, no matter your age.
Instead of walking through the entire exhibit display by display, I’ve decided to share some of the pieces that stood out to me. A museum exhibit is always a difficult event about which to write, because its very purpose is to allow you to not look at pictures from afar, but to experience it in person. I could show you the 300+ pictures I took and tell you about every plaque, photo and artifact, but that wouldn’t do it justice; you need to find a way to get to Chicago to take in this exhibit (and the museum itself). However, since there will be some of you who can’t make that trip, here’s what stood out to me….
Obviously, Disney’s contributions to the world of animation were featured heavily in this exhibit. Apart from a display focus on the 11-step animation process, were a fascinating collection of maquettes. A maquette is basically a small figurine used as a reference model while drawing animated characters. There were many maquettes on display from classic Disney films. At first glance, they may appear unimportant, because they don’t seem any different from statues you might buy in a theme park gift shop. However, once one realizes that these figures were THE models used by the original artists for some of the most famous Disney animated characters, it’s hard not to be awestruck.
There is also quite a bit of space devoted to Disneyland Park in Anaheim and The Magic Kingdom and Epcot in Orlando. In the theme parks portion of the exhibit is a document used in the creation of the promotional film featuring Walt sharing his vision for the “Florida Project.”
It is also clear that those responsible for designing this exhibit kept young museum visitors in mind during the planning process. There are many hands-on opportunities for children so they don’t get bored while older members of their family read all of the plaques and displays. There are numerous televisions playing brief segments within many of the individual displays (as seen in the middle of the above Mary Poppins photo). In addition, there are iPad stations where children and adults can experiment with the new “Disney Animated” app for the iPad.
The last element of the exhibit is something with which Disney Parks fans will be familiar: The Animation Academy. Similar to locations in Disney California Adventure and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, guests can try their hand at drawing Disney characters. Each session can accommodate approximately 90 people for a 12-15 minute class. The experience is very similar to the classes at the Disney Parks, but the Museum staff incorporates material on science and how it relates to the process of animation. The staff member that taught my class told me that every student would get to draw Mickey for the first month after which other characters would be added to the rotation.
After participating in The Animation Academy, visitors exit the exhibit space and, in addition to a small merchandise kiosk, are able to purchase photographs that were taken of them upon entering. Guests are photographed against a green background and then superimposed onto various backgrounds (someone in my party was put on top of Pride Rock from “The Lion King”).
In all, this exhibit does an incredible job of telling a cohesive story of innovation. From the innovation of Walt Disney, the individual in the realm of animation, film techniques and theme parks, to the continued innovation of his company today, “Treasures of the Disney Archives” is a breathtaking glimpse at artifacts that played a role in the way many of us are entertained. Will Disney fans enjoy this exhibit more than others? Absolutely, but there are enough items included in the 300+ artifacts that any visitor will find something to enjoy and will walk away having a better understanding of Walt Disney and his desire to innovate in everything he did.
NOTE: I was invited to cover the opening ceremony and media preview and was provided free admission to the exhibit. However, all opinions are my own.