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Where I Want to Go for Summer Vacation
Film/Video Museums around the World

By Robert Lamm

Believe it or not, there's at least a dozen museums dedicated to the history of film and video. And this isn't counting the large collections in larger museums like the Smithsonian in Washington. A lot of film/video museums are very poorly publicized, and some are pretty small. But all of them are interesting...

The Oldest Movie Museum in the World

Henri Langlois founded the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris during the 1930's to preserve the art of silent film. Talkies had just been introduced, and the art of cinematic pantomime was rapidly being forgotten. The Cinematheque grew into the world's most prestigious film society, with an impressive screening program and exhibitions on all aspects of film-making. It's also known for being the place where French 'New Wave' filmmakers like Francois Truffaut hung out and learned their craft.

Henri Langlois also collected movie memorabilia, often by asking people like Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney to rummage around in their attics. Most were flattered at the request and gladly added their personal souvenirs to the Cinematheque's collection. As a result, the society owns some of the most significant items in the history of motion pictures:

Here is where you'll find Buster Keaton's hat, Rudolph Valentino's Sheik costume, one of Vivien Leigh's dresses from Gone with the Wind, John Wayne's costume from Stagecoach (his breakout movie) and Alfred Hitchcock's wax mummified head from Psycho. There's a lot of production memorabilia too: An original script from Citizen Kane, a complete set from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (rebuilt to the original design by the film's scenic artist), Eisenstein's original production drawings for Viva Mexico and thousands of props, set materials, stills, models, production equipment and posters.

Now for the bad news: Henri Langlois died in the 1970s, and the museum seems to have been frozen in that era. The small portion of the collection on display is laid out for a specialist audience instead of today's film-literate masses: Many items are unlabeled and a lot of them aren't behind security. The public isn't allowed to wander: one has to go on one of the 5 daily escorted tours. These are offered only in FRENCH! Although the tour guides are very knowledgeable, they don't have the time to explain everything and one has to prompt them about items they skip over. Fellow tour members tend to be french filmaniacs, who can get bogged down in long philosophical discussions with the guide.

Kids won't like this museum too much either: Nothing to do. But the Eiffel Tower is very close by, so I recommend ditching the rest of the family there while you're at the museum. If you can read french, ask to buy the souvenir book: It's a short history of film illustrated with pictures of items that the museum owns. (They keep them hidden in a back room.)

Musee du Cinema
Palais de Chaillot (the big art-deco building overlooking the Eiffel Tower)
Subway: Trocadero

Everything Money can Buy

Nothing was spared to build this huge, very complete Museum of the Moving Image in the 1980's. There's something for everyone: Hands-on displays for the kids, props and costumes from famous stars for the masses, and amazingly detailed explanations of all sorts of esoterica for the serious film student. Excuse me, the film/video student, since the museum also has excellent exhibits on television. If the MOMI were in Los Angeles, it would be mobbed. Unfortunately, it's in London, England, where few tourists are even aware of its existence.

The exhibits are well organized, labeled in ENGLISH, and cover an amazing range of topics from the development of the technology to the national cinemas of different countries. Items to see include lots of Charlie Chaplin memorabilia (he was born nearby), an original production model of King Kong, and a wide range of production equipment. Everything is well documented and arranged to explain, whether it's the makeup process or the operation of a chromakey. (Which kids can use to key themselves flying over London.)

You know you're in a professionally designed museum when the exit leads through the gift shop, and an excellent one it is, too! There you'll find books on the history of British film and TV, all sorts of posters, as well as the usual film/video titles.

I bought a book on the history of the BBC, the British equivalent of PBS, and was surprised to learn that it's subject to a lot of political interference that would never pass muster over here: The government has actually prohibited broadcasters from interviewing certain people (like IRA members). In 1987, police raided BBC offices and confiscated several boxes of program materials when a broadcast the government didn't approve of was being planned. And the BBC isn't usually looking for trouble: It actually used to have a rule forbidding discussions of any issues scheduled for Parliamentary debate in the next two weeks! (Fortunately, this rule is long gone.) I guess First Amendment freedom-of-the-press rights are really very unique to the U.S.

The MOMI is another museum that's easy to get to: It's a quarter mile walk downstream from Parliament, on the other side of the river. This time, don't leave the family behind and plan on spending an entire day. The screening series in the National Film Theatre next door is pretty good too.

Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI)
South Bank Cultural Centre, under the Waterloo Brige abutment
Subway: Embankment or Waterloo

Denying History

Germans figure prominently in the history film: Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and many others. During the 1920's Germany's large film industry was considered the most intellectually advanced in the world, producing films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Last Laugh, M, The Blue Angel etc.

But the Nazis came to power, forced most of these people to flee, and turned the industry into a propaganda machine. Nevertheless, some creative filmmakers were still able to flourish. Leni Riefenstahl, a woman in a man's world, made documentaries that were so effective propagandistically that people are still reluctant to screen them.

The Germans were also broadcast pioneers, building a large radio industry (admittedly as a propaganda machine) and transmitting the first public TV broadcasts in the world. (Live coverage of the 1933 Berlin Olympics.)

None of this is mentioned in the German Film Museum. Instead, the museum traces the history of the movie camera and projector in excruciating detail. The funny thing is: Germans didn't have much to do with the development of this technology.

The museum takes the novel viewpoint that film technology started with... the railroad! They feel that the rapidly changing scenery in the window was neccessary to accustom the public to cinematic grammar like cuts, etc. This pronouncement is followed by room after room of primitive optical toys, meticulously categorized according to minute variations. The invention of photography (in France and England) and film (by Kodak in the U.S.) doesn't even occur until the second floor. Early attempts to photograph motion by people like Muybridge (in the U.S.) are very thoroughly documented. And there's an impressive exhibit on the development of the claw pull-down mechanism to hold the film still during the exposure. This all leads to the highlight of the tour: a complete reconstruction of the first moviehouse in the world: The Lumiere brothers' cafe-theater in Paris. And for American chauvinists, a working nickelodeon machine, invented by Thomas Edison.

Then, the anticlimax: a single room with a model robot from Metropolis (Just about every museum has one of these.) and a Leni Riefenstahl script. That's it.

Vidiots will find better coverage of TV at the nearby Postal Museum(!), which at least has models of some early radio and TV gear and exhibits on satellite and cable technology. You'll also discover that Paul Nipkow, a German, invented TV. Well, that's what the Postal Museum claims...

So, unless you're into camera and projector mechanics, prepare for disappointment in Frankfurt. But don't give up on the country yet: There's more in Berlin...

Deutsches Filmmuseum
Schaumainkai 41 (A riverfront promenade of museums.)
Subway stop: Schweizer Platz

Note: The exhibits in the Film and Postal museums are labeled exclusively in GERMAN.

Second Note: The Harvard Film Archive is running a festival of Nazi-era films though June 29. Contact 495-4700 for more info...

Out of the Past

The Berlin wall had just fallen. I rode a rickety elevated train to the edge of the city, and transferred under the shadow of the wall to a smoky East-German train and got off at a deserted station in East Germany. I wandered through a faded neighborhood of once-elegant villas to a small industrial park: UFA Studios. This is one of the oldest continuously operating studios in the world. (Founded in this location at the turn of the century.) Film history was literally made here: Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Blue Angel were shot on these stages. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder and a score of others began their careers here. Fritz Lang had been offered the directorship by Josef Goebbels.

The communists had preserved it as a completely vertically-integrated operation. A couple of thousand workers made movies from scratch, including carpentry shops to make furniture, automotive shops to handle cars and carriages, and a complete film lab. The studio had a captive market in the state movie theater circuit, as well as the state TV network. U.S. operations of this kind were killed in the 1950's by the anti-monopoly laws.

The studio's short encounter with the free market had practically killed it. It's client East German movie theater and TV networks were dissolved and the assets sold to western operations. It couldn't attract new customers because so much of the gear was obsolete. Efforts to keep staff busy by partnering international co-productions were foundering on national quotas that made it hard to fill a production with staff on hand.

By the time I got there, 2/3 of the staff had been laid off, the carpentry shop was building furniture for retail stores, and a cookie company was thinking about buying the facility and filling the historic stages, some still with glass roofs from the silent days, with continuous-flow ovens. In desperation, the management decided to throw the studio open to public tours, sort of like Universal Studios. Thank goodness no-one ever went to California: This was much better. Instead of building a theme park, they made a very sincere effort to explain the filmmaking process in the facilities where it actually took place.

Each department assigned an old-timer or two to give tours and answer questions. The costume and makeup people cracked open the supplies and allowed kids to dress up. (The girls as Marie-Antoinette, complete with beauty spots; the boys as pirates.) The directorial department 'filmed' a dramatic pickpocket scene one could participate in. The stunt department staged a pirate battle which climaxed when a stuntman took a 2-story fall into an impact cushion made up of cardboard boxes covered with a tarp. And the automotive department set out their prize antique automobiles, all polished up.

For me, the most interesting departments were those with less public appeal: film editing, the Metropolis soundstage, and the prop department. I was often the only person on the tours. The guide and I would wander around the department immersed in conversation about our countries' respective production techniques.

A film-editor demonstrated action-movie cutting on an East German Steenbeck clone, and regaled us with censorship stories. Entire movies had been suppressed for political reasons. But delight at new western freedoms had quickly faded when it became obvious that her job might not survive. Although she had over 30 years' experience in film editing, this film editor had absolutely no idea how she was going to fend for herself on the outside: She didn't even own the primitive editing table that she had helped assemble as an apprentice. "Do you regret the re-unification?", I asked. "No, she said, things might be tough for me, but life will be much easier for my children."

The Metropolis soundstage is still the largest one on the continent. Yes, the famous movie was shot here. The film was so expensive that it almost bankrupted the studio. The scenic designer of the large casino set that was there now was trying to save money: The ornate velvet wallpaper had been handpainted on!

The prop department had over a million items, all databased on index cards. The department manager proudly showed me how they shift these cards from one bin to another as the props move from one production to another. We took a long walk through the warehouse, crammed like an attic with all sorts of furniture, swords, guns, and busts of Lenin, Marx and Stalin. The staff had set out the barrel that Marlene Dietrich had sat on in her singing scene in The Blue Angel. I checked it out: No butt-prints.

A video about the studio's history was playing in the (four-track!) mix-to-pix facility/screening room. It featured an interview with the composer of the music for Metropolis (he was in his 90's, and still employed at the studio). And lots of coverage of the films made there from day one to the present day. Some were very spectacular: A 1930's special-effects movie about Baron Munchhausen that compared well with The Wizard of Oz, its contemporary. And a very ambitions Aladdin movie from the 1950's. But a lot of the films mentioned would only be familiar to East Germans, so a lot of the video was lost on me.

This is the museum to go to before all others: I don't think it's going to last, at least not in this form. There were very few people there when I went, and the staff seemed to feel that it was because there wasn't enough of a theme park atmosphere. So go before this turns into Universal Studios, Central European Edition. It's the last chance to see a piece of history that hasn't survived anywhere else.

DEFA (The new name, the UFA trademark belongs to another company now.)
August Bebel Str.
Berlin-Babelsberg
Ask for directions at Berlin tourist information (At the airport and main train station.) Bus and train routes have changed since I was there.

Note: Go with someone who speaks German.

Note 2: The Munchhausen movie will be playing at the Harvard Film Archive on June 18 as part of the Nazi Film series that they're running. Other pictures made at the same studio will be shown during this series too.

Small but Sobering

Behind West Berlin's starkly modernistic Convention Center Annex is the old 1920's radio tower. It looks just like the one on the RKO logo. There's a gorgeous view from the top. At the base, in the building that once housed the transmitters, is a small Broadcasting Museum...

The permanent exhibit isn't much: A collection of old TV sets and cameras documenting the starkly modern taste Germans seem to have in appliances. But the museum must do a big mail-order trade in books, they publish some outstanding ones: I bought the memoirs of the man who developed PAL television. His life was doubly interesting because he entered TV just as it began, with the development of the gear used to transmit the first public TV broadcast ever: The 1933 Olympics...

Pickup and picture tubes hadn't been developed yet, so they used flywheels punched with small holes to scan the images onto photocells! The amplified signal was relayed to various public viewing locations around Berlin, where it controlled the intensity of a light bulb. A synchronized flywheel punched with the same hole pattern scanned this light onto a screen. Electronic pickup and picture tubes developed by RCA in the U.S. made this clumsy arrangement obsolete.

There was a very powerful temporary exhibit at the museum when I was there. It was a recreation of a Nazi exhibit on 'Degenerate Music' along with some additional material to put it in perspective.

The original Nazi exhibit, designed to shock 1930's audiences, looked pretty innocuous today: Photos of Marlene Dietrich (fully clothed) sitting suggestively with legs spread apart. Pictures of musicians in blackface (with Jewish features). And a lot of stuff portraying Jazz as a threat to morals and culture. I could only wonder what they would have thought of rap.

The supplemental exhibits showed some other materials from the era. The Nazis went to a lot of effort to document their hatreds: There were complete encyclopaedias of 'Jewish music'. A typical entry was on Arnold Schoenberg, a modern musician of the John Cage variety: The entry credited him with "inventing the 12-tone musical scale, which was a direct challenge to tradition, and therefore a threat to everything that Germans hold dear..."

The next section had personal histories of some of the people who were mentioned in the previous exhibits. The lucky ones escaped. But almost none were able to resurrect their careers again. The director-generals of many a theater/radio station/network ended their days as desk clerks at fleabag hotels in in South America.

How could this happen? One of the college professors who wrote the Jewish Music Encyclopaedia apparently got fed up and left himself. In a letter on display, he described an impossible situation: All the Universities in Germany were run by the Government. So was the radio network. And the municipal orchestras and opera companies were supported by government subsidies. One really couldn't afford to get on the government's bad side, because it controlled everything.

A very timely message, I thought, because many arts people here want the government to become more involved in its finance. But if all artistic activity becomes dependent on government funding, don't we run the risk that people who oppose government policies will be reluctant to speak out?

In Germany, the Government's actions got pretty extreme: The last portion of the exhibit was film. A Nazi-era documentary portrayed Jewish history as one long crusade of greed and deceit. It compared Jews to rats, intecutting pictures of orthodox Jews with pictures of rats chewing into bags of grain, running along sewers, etc.

Even Ernst Lubitsch, an avuncular German-Jewish director who had made several hits in the U.S. (Ninotchka, The Little Shop Around the Corner) wasn't spared: Newsreel footage showing the famous director on a visit to his homeland was overlaid with a hysterical diatribe about how the praise of this man was an act of treason to the country.

"What did you think of this?", I asked a German who was sitting next to me. He wiped his brow. "I wasn't born yet." he said, relieved.

I should mention: Although I saw it in Germany, this excellent exhibit was actually assembled by a museum in Los Angeles, and was on tour.

Rundfunkmuseum
Am Funkturm (Directly under the radio tower inside the Convention Center grounds: You have to go through the Convention Center building to get to it. The passage is a little hard to find.)
Subway: Messe

Note: Recent stories about foreigners being attacked in Germany give the impression that it's dangerous for tourists. This isn't true: You're probably safer there than in Miami, even if you're Black or Jewish. The attacks have been fairly isolated and almost exclusively directed at poor immigrants.

XXX

The city of Amsterdam has a very appropiate corporate seal: Triple X's on a scarlet background. If you can tear yourself away from the red-light district, the pot/hash 'coffeehouses' and the torture museum, you might want to wander over to the Film Museum next to Vondel Park.

It's an ornate turn-of-the-century park building with an art-deco theater in it. There isn't much on display, the nightly screenings are main attraction. These lean toward the highbrow stuff one sees at the Harvard Film Archive: When I was there they were showing a Sergej Paradzjanov festival, a compilation of old Pathe travelogues, as well as some of the old chestnuts that play revival theaters everywhere.

There's a small exhibition space, usually with something related to the screenings, and (in a different building) a library of film books, periodicals, and archival materials.

The library is open during the day, but the museum has movie-house hours: It's only open in the evenings when screenings take place.

Nederlands Filmmuseum
Vondelpark 3
(The library is at Vondelstraat 69-71)
Amsterdam
Tram: #1, 6, or 11 to Constantijn Huygensstraat

Note: Amsterdam is the site of the annual IBC trade show every September. It's sort of like a European NAB, only not as big. If you missed NAB, you might enjoy going to this show. Language isn't a problem, everyone speaks English. However, most of the gear shown will be PAL versions.

Double Dipping

NHK, the large Japanese government-subsidized broadcaster, has TWO museums in Tokyo. The 'NHK Broadcasting Museum' is near the Tokyo Tower (a tourist attraction similar to the Eiffel Tower) in an office building on the site of their first radio facility. Here one can see a broad collection of old receivers, decommissioned equipment and some instructive hands-on exhibits.

Considering the recent controversy about Japanese reluctance to purchase imported goods, you may be very surprised to see that a lot of this gear is foreign: I was particularly surprised to see Philips Plumbicon cameras, which NHK apparently bought in preference to the very high quality (Japanese) Ikegami ones that were also available at the time.

Everything is well arranged in chronological order with some modest exhibits showing the development of pickup tubes and videotape. Some exhibits are targeted at kids: A set for them to chromakey themselves into, stuff to make special-effects sounds and some interactive computer carrels. But all the labeling and explanatory text is in Japanese, a language that makes even English words impossible to fathom. And unlike a lot of Japanese museums, there is no English guidebook. So bring a Japanese friend along to translate.

NHK's other museum is in their headquarters/main production facility on the west side of town. It has exhibits on the production process and tours of the studios, including the sets used to make the ever-popular historical samurai dramas one constantly sees on Japanese TV. But this museum was temporarily closed until March 1995 while I was there so I couldn't check it out. The reconstructed museum should have expanded exhibits on the production process and TV technology.

Planning to visit? Take warning: If you think streets in Cambridge and Somerville are poorly labeled, wait till you get to Japan: Virtually none of the streets have names, and house numbers are assigned by construction date rather than sequence on a road. So if you don't speak Japanese (very few Japanese speak English), buy a map with these two museums marked off before setting out. Otherwise you'll get hopelessly lost. Or have someone write their names out in Japanese and take a cab.

If you're in any other major Japanese city, you may want check out the local NHK facility. I saw several with modest exhibits in their lobbies, and some even had performance spaces with public concerts!

NHK Broadcast Museum
Atagoyama, Tokyo
Subway: Between Onarimon (Mita Line) and Kamiya-cho (Hibiya Line) stations.

NHK Broadcasting Center
Shibuya, Tokyo
Southwest side of Yoyogi Park, west of the Olympic Stadium
Subway: Meiji-Jingu-mae (Chiyoda Line), Harajuku (JR Yamanote Line)

The Paramount Studio in New York

The US film industry began in NYC, and most of the major studios had production facilities in the metropolitan area. Paramount's large studio in Queens operated until well into the sound era. It was particularly handy for filming Broadway plays or shooting talkies with stage actors. Cocoanuts, the Marx Brothers comedy, was made here while the stage version was still on Broadway.

Believe it or not, this studio still exists in its entirety and is still being used for film and video production. After a long stint as the Army's main training-film production center, it was converted back into a commercial facility, now called Astoria Studios. Space is leased to various production companies. Among the recent tenants: The Cosby Show.

The American Museum of the Moving Image is there too, a large exhibit and screening facilty with lots of temporary exhibits and a small permanent collection. One of the best parts is a section with playbacks of some classic scenes from shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Cosby Show. Headphones provide commentary on the scene by the directors. There's the usual complement of costumes worn by famous stars, and some hands-on exhibits for the kids. There's a lot of memorabilia from The Cosby Show, including a collection of sweaters that the star wore on the show.

But the real strength of this museum is its exhibit and screening program: 2/3 of the space is reserved for temporary exhibitions, and they've covered subjects like Black Filmakers of the 40's, special-effects makeup, political ads through the ages, and Walt Disney's films from when he was still in Kansas City. (His distinctive humor was already evident, even in the industrial films he was making for dentists.)

However, there are no tours of the studio facilites that surround the museum. The only way to see the these is to be part of a production or studio audience.

Don't let the out-of-the-way location deter you: It's only a few stops away from Manhattan by subway. The neighborhood is pretty safe too.

American Museum of the Moving Image
Astoria Studios
35th Avenue at 36th St.
Astoria (Queens) NY
Subway:

  • R or G train to Steinway St.
  • N train to Broadway in Astoria

The Museum of Television and Radio

This used to be the Museum of Broadcasting. It changed its name when it moved into palatial new digs just north of Rockefeller Center in New York.

This museum doesn't waste much time with production detritus like costumes and props: It concentrates on the programs themselves. It's got a huge archive of practically every program ever made. You select up to four programs you wish to see on a computer console and go to a library-carrel type viewing location to watch them.

I was told that the most popular selections are the Ed Sullivan Shows that the Beatles and Elvis Presley appeared on. I did the next-most-popular thing, I punched up the great programs from my youth. Big disappointment: They weren't as good as I remembered.

The museum also has a couple of theaters with continuous screenings: Recent topics included a Steve Allen retrospective, recent German made-for-TV movies, and some 'lost' Honeymooners episodes that hadn't been seen since their original broadcast.

There's also a small exhibit space with rotating exhibitions, generally of costume designs.

This is a good museum to go to when you're alone: It's hard to socialize in its library-like atmosphere. If you bring a friend, you may be surprised at what they choose to watch!

Museum of Television and Radio
25 West 52nd St.
New York City
Subway: Rockefeller Center

Note: You might also want to check out the new Sony exhibit in the Sony building a couple of blocks away. This 3-story exhibit was nearing completion while I was writing this, and is rumored to be about all the new communications technology that Sony is pioneering. In the gallery annex behind the building at Madison Ave and 55th St.

Liberace isn't the Only Star with a Las Vegas Museum

Going to NAB? Consider staying at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel in Las Vegas, within walking distance of the convention center. It's owned and operated by the star (she frequently performs in the hotel theater), and her collection of movie memorabilia is on display off the lobby. She's snuck in some pieces from her own movies, but there are also costumes worn by Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Laurel and Hardy and more. The nice thing about this collection is that you're likely to have heard of the movies and stars represented. The bad part is that the exhibit isn't very big. I hear that it's being enlarged, though...

Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino
Convention Center Drive
Las Vegas, NV

Right Here in New England...

Old video equipment never dies: It's donated to Emerson College, where Paul Beck maintains most of it in full working order as a living memorial to the craft. The cameras used to shoot The Ed Sullivan Show, Walter Cronkite's camera, etc. have all found homes on the college's Back Bay campus. Unfortunately, the collection isn't on public display. However, Paul usually trots some of it out for the annual June SMPTE barbecue. This popular event will be taking place at Active Communications' new facility in Waltham on June 29 this year. It's open to the public, and more information is available from Paul himself at (617) 578-8834.

And what about Hollywood?

Plans for a film/video museum haven't come to fruition yet. But one could argue that the whole Los Angeles area is a show-business museum, from maps of the stars' houses to studio tours. And there are lots of small museums like the Max Factor Makeup Museum and the original barn that Paramount was founded in, now next to the Hollywood Bowl. In fact, there's so much to see that it merits a separate article! (Which I'll write in time for next summer.) So until then: Have a pleasant holiday!

Bob Lamm is Manager at CYNC corp., a video equipment dealership specializing in broadcast and multimedia gear. He can be reached at (617) 277-4317, cync@world.std.com.

(c)1995 Robert Lamm

Posted: June 1995
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor
blamm@cync.com