Some Museum Closures Could Be Permanent, Curators Fear

london's charles dickens museum and others could face permanent closure

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Some museums may not survive coronavirus stay-at-home measures, The New York Times reported. Often relying on ticket sales and other income earned on-location, many museums fear permanent closure if doors don’t reopen soon. Cultural losses would be devastating.

Smithsonian National Art Gallery
Stay-at-home orders financially affect museums worldwide since museum ticket sales and other public events on location generate income. Photo by Wangkun Jia

According to The New York Times article, several high-profile museums around the world are risking permanent closure due to their reliance on public-generated income. “All but about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s museums are currently shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Peter Keller, the general director of the International Council of Museums. According to the council’s research, one in 10 may not reopen.”

Some museums at risk listed in the article included the Charles Dickens Museum in London, both Museo de la Rioja and the Museum of the Americas in Spain, Kornberg Castle in Austria, the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center in Hungary, and the National Historical Museum in Albania.

One of the biggest contributions of the United States to modern culture is cinema. For now, American institutions like the Smithsonian museums are safe from closure, but to put this story into perspective, here are some of the pieces of movie history that could be lost if the crisis hit Washington, D.C.

A Technicolor Milestone

One of the most iconic pieces of American culture on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is the pair of “ruby slippers” worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The costume item from the 80-year-old classic also symbolizes a major milestone in cinema: Technicolor.

“The movie was among the first to use this innovative technology for color filmmaking,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. “Walt Disney had produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Technicolor, and it become the top-grossing film of 1938. [Louis] Mayer, envious of Disney’s success, put his money on The Wizard of Oz with its rich visual imagery.

“He came up with the idea of beginning the film on the tornado-ravaged prairie in sepia-tinted black and white in order to contrast it with the jaw-dropping, spectacularly colorful Land of Oz shot in three-strip Technicolor film.”

Another reason The Wizard of Oz is such an iconic film is due to the time it was released in American history. Dr. Kurin said Mayer felt the story would strike a chord as the country was struggling in the wake of The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl. He said Americans would find reassurance in the film’s “honest, traditional values of the rural heartland.” And it did.

The Droids in Star Wars

Another piece of film history the Smithsonian hosted just a few years ago were the costumes for the androids R2-D2 and C-3PO from the George Lucas film Return of the Jedi.

“R2-D2 looks more like a small, fancy blue-and-white garbage can than a human being,” Dr. Kurin said. “In the films, R2-D2 is a helpmate, created to interface with computers and service starships on behalf of humans; he’s a highly competent technician who effectively and efficiently performs complicated tasks well beyond human capability. Though visibly a machine, he has a personality that alternates between comic and courageous.”

The R2-D2 costume on display at the Smithsonian helped visitors relive their childhoods and get an inside look—literally—at how the little robot operated. Dr. Kurin said actor Kenny Baker piloted R2 from the inside, which he climbed into via the robot’s removable head. R2 is just 44 inches tall and made of aluminum, epoxy, and fiberglass.

“C-3PO, R2-D2’s sidekick and character foil, is called a protocol droid in the series,” Dr. Kurin said. “More humanoid than R2-D2 in form, character, and movement, C-3PO interfaces with the diverse cultures of Lucas’s imaginary galaxy as a robotic translator and diplomat. C-3PO is talkative and tentative, sometimes even meek and cowardly, a good counterpart to the terser, braver, and more certain R2-D2.”

According to Dr. Kurin, when visitors got up close to C-3PO, they could see that the costume was 5 feet 8 inches tall. Its torso is made of fiberglass, while its legs “combine a leotard, socks, and fiberglass.” The arms are aluminum and the pelvis and feet are rubber. Actor Anthony Daniels climbed into the suit for filming in order to bring C-3PO to life.

“The Star Wars films have made great entertainment, but they’ve also become a cultural touchstone, not only for avid fans, but now for several generations of Americans,” Dr. Kurin said. “The droids are more than movie stars in these films; they are indicators of the place robots might occupy in the human experience.”

If the threat of closures that museums overseas are facing were to hit the Smithsonian, iconic pieces of American film like The Wizard of Oz‘s ruby slippers and Return of the Jedi‘s droid costumes could be shuttered for good. We can only hope the at-risk museums find a way to stay open.

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. Dr. Kurin holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.