|An admission ticket to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, showing Walt himself in his office in the 1930s.
Visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum
By Michael Barrier
My wife and I spent a week in northern California in March. Our first morning in San Francisco, we made our first visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum. It's in the Presidio, the former army post near the Golden Gate Bridge that is now the country's largest urban national park, We didn't know what to expect. Since the museum opened in 2009, I'd heard conflicting reports from people whose opinions I respect, some very enthusiastic, others less so. I recalled with special trepidation one knowledgeable Disney fan's complaint that he was "bored out of my skull" by the time he'd gone through the museum. I thought we might be in for something like a typical presidential library, where the subject's life is wrapped in a golden haze that makes seeing the real person difficult.
I was wrong. The Walt Disney Family Museum is terrific. It's an extraordinary achievement for Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter and the museum's co-founder (with her husband, Ron) and guiding spirit. Phyllis and I thought we might spend two or three hours at the museum; we spent a full day instead, and we would have stayed until the 6 p.m. closing time if we hadn't had friends waiting for us at our hotel. Phyllis is by no means as Disney- and animation- and comics-obsessed as I am, but she loved the museum as much as I did.
There were a number of reasons for that, beginning with the museum's endlessly inventive and entertaining design. The fun begins in the first gallery, where, as you hear Walt's voice, scenes representing his early life are enacted by jointed figures like those in the advertising films that were his first exposure to animation. When Walt travels from Kansas City to Los Angeles, museum visitors make the same trip—from the first floor to the second, in an elevator decorated to resemble a railroad passenger car of the 1920s, with midwestern fields visible through the "windows." Walt left Kansas City because of the failure of his company, Laugh-O-gram Films, and so as the elevator rises, toward L.A. and success, you hear his voice say, "I think it's important to have a good hard failure when you're young."
Here as elsewhere, the museum honors its subject by presenting his life in a manner that he almost certainly would find entirely consistent with his own convictions about how to blend fact and entertainment. The museum never trivializes Walt's life, but there's nothing resembling solemnity until the very end, in a sober and restrained account of Walt's last days.
Mostly, though, what makes the museum so successful is that it is first of all a Walt Disney museum, and beyond that a family museum.
Walt himself is everywhere in the museum—in photographs, in video, in audio. There is quite a lot that I hadn't seen before, and it is here that the special value of the family connection makes itself felt, in photographs and home movies and artifacts that haven't been overexposed in books and TV shows. Much of the rest of the material in the exhibits was familiar to me, more so, I'm sure, than to most people—for instance, I've heard the recordings of the Pete Martin interviews that were the basis of Diane Miller's 1957 biography, The Story of Walt Disney. Even here, I was sometimes surprised by audio clips from interviews that I knew only as transcripts. If I'd ever heard Roy Disney's distinctively midwestern voice before, with its slight rasp, I don't know when that was, and so it was wonderful to hear Roy talk about his "dominating" little brother's marriage to a sweet young wife who let him have his way.
But it's really the cumulative effect of the museum's exhibits, rather than the novelty or the familiarity of individual items, that ultimately makes the strongest impression, especially if you allow yourself time to immerse yourself in those exhibits (as my "bored" friend probably did not). Because the museum's focus is so insistently on Walt himself, and on what he did—not on what other people have said about him or his works—I found it very easy to be pulled along by the buoyancy of Walt's personality, especially in the exhibits covering his first four decades. There's not a trace in the museum of the haunted, driven figure invented by some of his biographers. What I saw there instead was the Walt I wrote about in The Animated Man: a natural enthusiast, someone who was always seeking new outlets for his apparently boundless energy.
I don't know that there has ever been a popular artist quite like Walt, except possibly Charles Dickens. That comparison can't bear too much weight, of course; for one thing, the autobiographical thread in Dickens's best novels has no equivalent in Walt's best films. But they were alike in that they made compelling to millions of other people what was intensely interesting to them. The museum captures exactly that same spirit: it is a deeply personal undertaking, born out of a daughter's love for a father who was, you have no doubt, entirely worthy of it, and it gives to memories of that man an enhanced reality.
The museum keeps faith with Walt's better nature even in its display on the 1941 Disney studio strike, certainly Walt's low point. I must have read the rather long placard about the strike, but it didn't make much of an impression on me; I was too distracted by the home movies of the strikers outside the Disney plant, and then by the audio of Walt's 1947 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then by the audio of Disney veterans lamenting the strike's effects on how people felt about one another after the walkout ended. It was that personal damage to everyone involved, Walt included, that ultimately mattered most, and I think that comes through in the museum's exhibit.
For me, the three great pillars of Walt's career have always been the shorts of the 1930s, the early animated features, and Disneyland (which I've come to admire more over time, as I've ceased to resent how it pulled him away from animation). The museum does all those things justice, most spectacularly with a huge tabletop model of Disneyland—not the real place, actually, but a sort of fantasy Disneyland that embodies plans and ideas that weren't always realized, or were realized in different form. The model dominates a very large gallery, part of a glass-and-steel addition to the original masonry building.
I didn't sense in the museum any overbearing urge to instruct me in how I should think about Walt. The museum doesn't insist that the visitor admire all of Walt's live-action features or the sometimes questionable projects that consumed so much of his time in his last few years; it simply fits them into its account of his life. What does the museum tell us about the never-built and, I would argue, ill-conceived Mineral King ski resort? I can't really say, but I do remember, vividly, the film of Walt, drawn and obviously ill, at his news conference in the mountains with Governor Pat Brown, just a few weeks before he died. Whatever you think about Mineral King, you feel for the man.
The exhibits end abruptly with Walt's death, but one effect of the museum as a whole, for me anyway, was a heightened sympathy for the people who had to carry on after Walt was gone. What an impossible task—not because every idea Walt came up with was first-rate, but because those ideas, like the studio itself, were entirely his. Whatever came next with the "Disney" label attached could not help but seem counterfeit in some way, since Walt could no longer be the author.
The museum is not perfect, of course. There are the inevitable small errors (as with a caption that misdates a photo of Walt and Diane at the Henry Ford Museum to 1940, rather than 1944), and I felt once or twice that an exhibit was straying from the emphasis on Walt by trying a little too hard to explain some technical aspect of animated filmmaking. A wall filled with Mickey Mouse toys and books from the 1930s demonstrates the tremendous popularity of Walt's creation, but there's weaker justification for the wall space devoted to comic strips and comic books. Walt wrote the "Mickey Mouse" newspaper strip in its early months, and he kept an eye on it for the next few years, but that's really all we need to know. I enjoyed seeing the very early issues of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, but except for having Walt's name on them they had nothing to do with him.
One side effect of the museum's emphasis on Walt himself is that certain of his animators and other employees seem to be favored over others, because they were around to be interviewed about him when other people who were arguably more important had died. But that's an unavoidable hazard, one also evident in many of the books about Walt and in the "extras" for Disney DVDs, and I eventually concluded that the museum had dealt with it about as well as possible. Not even Art Babbitt, the important animator who earned Walt's enmity as a leader of the strike, is neglected.
There are, though, aspects of Walt's own life that could profitably be explored in greater depth. One example: As Diane Miller pointed out to me, there's not much on display that deals with Walt's extended visit to Europe in 1935, a trip that quite likely had significant effects on his thinking about his films. An exhibit that showed just how extensive that trip was, and how deliriously Walt was received by his multitudes of European admirers, could be revelatory.
I found the museum's location problematic, even though the old army barracks in which the museum is housed has been recycled beautifully. For many out-of-town visitors, getting to the museum from downtown San Francisco is either difficult, requiring a bus transfer, or expensive (it was raining the day of our visit, so Phyllis and I took cabs both ways, at a total cost of about forty dollars). Perhaps as the Presidio becomes increasingly converted to civilian uses a more direct connection with downtown, like a shuttle of some kind, will become feasible.
In any case, it's worth a little trouble and expense to get to the museum. It's the sort of place that can be enjoyed by almost everyone, but for anyone who claims a serious interest in Walt Disney and his creations, it is a treasure indeed.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio of San Francisco. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Tuesday; it is also closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. For additional information about admission charges and other practical matters, visit the Museum's website.
[Posted March 26, 2012]