Museum Is to Show the Human Side of a Cartoon Titan
The heirs of Walt Disney, angered by negative portrayals of him over the years, are preparing to unveil their response: a $112 million museum focused on his happy home life and artistic achievements.
useum, to be run by the former deputy director of the Harvard University Art Museums, Richard Benefield, will open in October in San Francisco. On Wednesday the institution will introduce its exhibition plans and holdings, which range from personal items (home movies never shown before) to “Steamboat Willie” animation cels.
“It all started with a nasty book and my frustration with how reporters all around the world picked it up,” said Diane Disney Miller in an interview. Mrs. Miller, Disney’s sole surviving child, was referring to “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince,” a 1994 biography by Marc Eliot that depicted him as a bigot.
Mrs. Miller, 75, said she was also dismayed by “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” a 2006 biography by Neal Gabler that included an unflattering look at his marriage. Unlike Mr. Eliot’s book, which has been dismissed by some historians, Mr. Gabler’s work benefited from full cooperation with the family and the Walt Disney Company.
Speaking of the company, Mrs. Miller hasn’t been especially thrilled with aspects of its stewardship, either. “They try, but there is nobody there anymore who actually knew him,” she said. Disney the man, she frets, has gotten lost as his empire pushes its brand across the globe.
“My kids have literally encountered people who didn’t know that my father was a person,” said Mrs. Miller, who has seven children with her husband, Ronald. “They think he’s just some kind of corporate logo.”
Thus the museum. Financed by the family’s foundation and the sale of bonds, it aims to refocus attention on the man behind the myth by telling his life story, from humble beginnings in rural Missouri to a stint driving an ambulance in World War I to his fascination with utopian ideas. The work, of course, is also there, including an exhibit on the making of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Hollywood’s first feature-length animated film, including the actual Academy Awards it received, a full-size Oscar and seven tiny ones.
“I’m really glad the family is doing this,” said Steven D. Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts, of which Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, were co-founders. “People who want to take pot shots at pop culture often focus on him, and the depth and profundity of his work can really get missed as a result.”
The museum will be located in three historic buildings in the Presidio of San Francisco, picked for its proximity to Mrs. Miller’s home and because it would stand out, far from the corporate headquarters in Southern California. Exhibits will be organized in chronological order and feature 215 video monitors. There will also be a 120-seat screening space, a store and a cafe.
Because of its relatively constricted size, the museum will admit a maximum of 60 people every 15 minutes. That allows for an annual attendance of 517,000, though Mr. Benefield said he was aiming for 350,000. Tickets will be timed, so drop-ins may not be immediately accommodated.
Museums designed to burnish reputations rarely succeed, except in the minds of the organizers. Often sneered at as vanity projects, they typically steer so clear of anything controversial or unflattering that the public grows suspicious of the positive parts of the story.
Mr. Benefield said he had a blunt conversation with Mrs. Miller and her son Walt before taking the job. “There has to be academic integrity and scholarship of the highest order, or I really don’t want to be involved,” he recalled telling Mrs. Miller.
“I told her there are things that you might not want to hear about your father, but we don’t want to ignore them,” Mr. Benefield continued. “Putting out the whole story will be very meaningful. It will debunk some of these wild myths, like that he was frozen when he died. Totally untrue.”
(Disney, who died in 1966 at 65 from complications from lung cancer, was cremated; his burial site is in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, Calif.)
So the museum will include, for example, a video about Disney’s friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and will pay attention to the bitter animators’ strike against him in 1941.
Starting the museum has been difficult. Disney did not decorate his home with animation art, so the vast majority of his work is owned by the company. Mrs. Miller had to buy what she could and is relying on lent material as well. The company is sending scores of items, including a rare multiplane camera that was developed to create a three-dimensional effect for “Snow White.”
Further complicating matters, Disney owns its founder’s name and image. “We have to run most everything by the company to make sure it’s happy with it,” Mr. Benefield said.
Disney executives declined to comment. They are probably puzzled by Mrs. Miller’s concerns, given the attention the company gives her father. Disney releases DVDs called “Walt Disney Treasures” that feature his television appearances and operates a museum-style attraction about his life at Walt Disney World. The company recently issued collectible figurines in his likeness and runs a fan club and magazine dedicated to him; part of its California Adventure Park is being rebuilt to reflect Disney’s early days in the state.
The company has thrived by controlling its characters, whether Mickey Mouse or Walt Disney himself. But Mrs. Miller may set the bar when it comes to being protective. Mr. Benefield recalled that, upon his hiring, her son Walt said, “Anything my mother wants, she gets.”