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Saving Mr. Disney at The Museum that His Daughter Built

Walt Disney, early 1930s Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company/ © Disney

Walt Disney, early 1930s
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company/ © Disney

Being a lifelong Disney fanboy who grew up in the Bay Area, I am no stranger to the Walt Disney Family Museum. Seeing Saving Mr. Banks, experiencing its references to Walt’s life as a “Daddy” and his commitment to fulfilling his daughters’ wish to see Mary Poppins on the big screen, especially in the wake of Diane Disney Miller’s recent passing, inevitably brought my mind back to the Museum. Knowing that Tom Hanks met with Disney Miller there to research how to bring her father to life on the big screen makes the movie even more touching and Mr. Hanks’ performance more poignant. Walt Disney’s unwavering love for his daughters was obviously reciprocal, as Disney Miller invested so much of herself in carrying on the memory of who her father was as a man.

I wanted to learn more, now more than ever, about how and why Diane Disney Miller co-founded the Museum, and what it meant to her personally. I was lucky to have the opportunity to speak with Andi Wang, Communication & Digital Media Manager for the Walt Disney Family Museum, and ask her a few questions.

Why did Diane decide to found the Museum? In what other forms has a museum existed? I remember visiting a Disney exhibit at the Ronald Reagan presidential library when I was younger, but were there earlier incarnations of a Disney museum?

A.W.: The Museum started out as a web site, an “online museum,” telling you about Walt’s life and legacy, with photos of some of the artifacts. As some of Diane’s children were going through the objects, Joanna (Diane’s daughter) found old newspapers wrapped around Walt’s Academy Awards. They decided to open up a smaller museum on Gorgas Avenue, a warehouse where many of these objects were kept. It would be opened up to school groups or others who inquired about Walt’s life, but it wasn’t really opened as a museum. Richard and Catherine Green are two Disney historians and authors, so they actually helped create a content-rich website with the artifacts of the Museum.

The Museum is located in a former army barrack in the Presidio of San Francisco. Photo by Ric Miller, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

The Museum is located in a former army barrack in the Presidio of San Francisco.
Photo by Ric Miller, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

A few years ago, the Miller family heard that the Presidio would be renting the old army barracks. The Millers found a building with the least amount of original fabric (because they can’t really be changed) and decided to renovate it and make a museum to open up to the public. Diane and her son Walter Elias Disney Miller opened up this museum to show the world “the man behind the magic.”

Diane is often asked whether she will write a book about her father, and she says that this museum is her book. (The book The Story of Walt Disney from the 1950s is not really her book, but rather she did an interview and it was written for her.)

Why should guests visit the museum? What can they experience there that they can’t anywhere else?

Guests should visit the museum because it is all about Walt Disney’s life, work, and legacy. Whether you’re a child or an adult, everybody has experienced Walt Disney’s work in some way everyone knows the stories but not the “man behind the brand” and his journey in making this entertainment empire. Whether you are a kid who wants to be inspired, by becoming an animator or following your dreams, and for adults and people who are older, it touches upon nostalgia by reliving your childhood. But no matter what age you are, you come to the museum to be inspired.

Is the Museum a good place to take the whole family, or is it better for just adults?

There are different tiers at this museum through which you can explore, depending on your own interests. Instead of a regular museum with panels on the wall and descriptions of things to look at, you can go through and hear everything in Walt’s own voice making it easier for families and children to listen to Walt himself rather than looking at objects. This is a much more interactive, hands-on museum, with HD monitors and multimedia, touch-tables and touch screens. No matter what your age, you will be engaged in different ways.

Named after Walt's wife Lillian, the Lilly Belle is a 1/8 scale model of an actual steam engine train. Built by his own hands, Walt had this train run on a half-mile track around his Holmby Hills home. Photo by Jim Smith, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

The Lilly Belle is a 1/8 scale model of an actual steam engine train. Built by his own hands, Walt had this train run on a half-mile track around his Holmby Hills home.
Photo by Jim Smith, Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.

Furthermore, there are different highlighted themes such as if you are interested in music, through Walt’s father playing the fiddle and the Sherman Brothers. Or if you are interested in animation, you can go through that as well so there are different ways to go through the Museum depending on what your interests are.

We also offer a lot of programs and workshops, including an event on Saturdays called Open Studios, letting families to come in and learn about different art mediums and to try their hand at different arts and technologies that Walt helped create. There are also other programs based on the Topic of the Month, where artists will come and talk about Walt, and Learn From the Masters, where people come and teach you about their expertise of the industry. Camille Rose Garcia came in and talked about the low-brow art movement and how to do her type of art. You can learn about the history of animation as well as from people who were touched by Walt in their own works.

How do you find artists, such as Camille Rose Garcia, that are a good fit for the museum?

Sometimes we are approached by artists but there is also such a diverse staff here with different interests in art. One of our last exhibits, Between Frames, was inspired by one of our staffers who was very interested in stop-motion animation, and she saw one of the puppets that was used and was fascinated by it prompting an exhibit focused on stop-motion. A connection is found between that artist and Walt and they go from there.

Camille Rose Garcia grew up near Disneyland and was inspired by the story of Walt Disney, and she has two works: Snow White and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An upcoming exhibition is Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong. He was an animator who worked on Bambi, who did a lot of the layout art and background drawings. He did work with the Disney Studios and went on to have a very successful career.

We are inspired by different art and we research it and then we always tie it back to Walt and then bring it to the Museum. Our last exhibition, Maurice Sendak, was a traveling show, but Maurice saw himself as Mickey Mouse’s brother, and saw Disney films as a means of escape. He truly admired Walt Disney after seeing Fantasia.

Was it a tough decision for the Museum to include more “controversial” content like the Walt Disney Studios’ union issues?

Walt Disney reads a bedtime story to his daughters Sharon (left) and Diane (right).

Walt Disney reads a bedtime story to his daughters Sharon (left) and Diane (right).

It was never a tough decision, because the Museum is dedicated to telling the full story of Walt Disney. Furthermore, times were very different back then. Walt wanted to make a live-action film, prompting Song of the South which necessitates its inclusion even despite the controversy. The whole story of Walt Disney’s life, if you really take a good look at it is that he was a man, he was a person. Diane has always said, “Whatever makes you human is also what made Walt Disney human.”

This last thought Andi left me with — making Walt human — truly left an impact on how I came to view Walt both at the Museum and here in my career with The Walt Disney Company. Of course hardcore Disney fans, and even more casual ones, are aware of the general story of the Company and of Walt’s transition from producing cartoon shorts to animated feature films to live-action films to theme parks. But the one side of Walt that often goes unaddressed is his personal life, particularly from his humble beginnings to struggling as a filmmaker in Los Angeles. His beginnings are touched upon in Saving Mr. Banks and Disney Dads was itself inspired by the man behind the brand. Seeing photos at the Museum of Walt and his brother Roy in front of their first studio, or the modest homes they lived in even at the height of popularity of the Mickey Mouse cartoons, make Walt less of a larger-than-life figure and more of an everyman. Diane’s mission to tell Walt’s story does ring true throughout the Walt Disney Family Museum, sharing the journey of her father as an ordinary man with extraordinary talent.

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