November 24, 2022 · Some of the most iconic props in film history are on display at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

How they are preserved is an art in itself.

Very few visitors get lost in the basement of the Academy Museum.

This is due to what the construction on the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles has to offer above ground.

For example, the wooden sled Rosebud from Orson Welles' classic "Citizen Kane", on loan from the filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Or the famous floral dress worn by actress Florence Pugh as the May Queen in Ari Aster's horror drama Midsommar.

And the bruised silicone torso that Leonardo DiCaprio donned daily during filming after the bear attack in historical thriller The Revenant—a creation by costume designer Siân Grigg, with chest hair, pale skin, and hidden tubes to protect DiCaprio on his way into to make civilization bleed again and again.

The relics of film art stand above, in the glass showcases of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) museum, in a warm, almost devotional light.

Below, in the basement of the historic building, visitors are greeted by cold white neon beams.

Through numerous fire protection doors, a labyrinth of corridors leads to the most lackluster rooms in the museum, at least at first glance, to the restoration studio.

“Visitors,” says curator Jessica Niebel, “we rarely receive visitors down here.

In fact, never.”

In the underground: in the studio in the basement of the museum building, old film props are being preserved from decay by restorers.

The studio, named after Hollywood diva Debbie Reynolds, is one of the heart of the Academy Museum.

Even before the opening in September, the American film academy had announced that it would not just be exhibiting props, costumes and camera equipment.

America's largest film museum is also set to help rescue relics from more than 100 years of Hollywood history.

"Many pieces have spent decades in attics or cellars, are dusty, damaged or brittle," says Niebel.

In detail: the work of the restorers is limited to the bare essentials - the pieces should remain as close as possible to the original.

Even the rubber head with the bloodshot eyes, who is lying on a kind of dissecting table in the catacombs, doesn't seem to have fared very well after his appearance in the vampire film "Salem 2 - The Return".

After more than 35 years, it has cracks and holes, and paper is stuck to the fake blood.

Together with her team, the restorer Sophie Hunter examined the prop under ultraviolet light, took material samples with a scalpel and analyzed them under the microscope.

Hunter now faces a tightrope walk between conservation and restoration.

Like other film props, the rubber head should remain an original, but must be saved from further deterioration.

Hunter says the monster shouldn't look like new even after the treatment.

"We want to preserve Hollywood history, not perfect it,"

Hunter saves the rubber head from "Salem 2" with foam and putty.

The fact that props were not intended for the museum, but traditionally ended up in the dustbin after use on the film set, doesn't make their work any easier.

“The materials were not designed to last forever.

You only had to look good for the short time of filming.

Preserving them is always a challenge, especially when the props only come to us decades later.”


Debbie Reynolds was the first to realize that Elizabeth Taylor's discarded Cleopatra costumes were more than rags.

As Hollywood's self-proclaimed curator, the actress auctioned off hundreds of props, instruments and costumes when MGM Studios was liquidated in 1970.

In the decades that followed, Reynolds continued to collect: Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat, the grand piano that Elvis played at his Holmby Hills mansion, the robes worn by Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!, the camera that George Lucas used in " Star Wars” turned.

Reynolds, a Hollywood legend himself through roles in film musicals such as "Singin' in the Rain" and "Tammy", hoped to be able to persuade the film academy to establish a joint museum.

But the Academy refused - not just once, as Reynolds later recalled, but five times.

A large replica of the Oscar can be seen in the window of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Photo: LAT/Polaris/Laif

In the late 1990s, after failing to set up her own exhibition in the gambling city of Las Vegas, she began selling the memorabilia.

After Reynolds' death in 2016, the Academy finally reached out to her son, Todd Fisher.

Which pieces from his mother's collection he donated to the museum remains a secret.

The fact that the Academy at least posthumously recognized the commitment of the eighty-four-year-old at the time can be seen in the basement of the Academy Museum.

It says "Debbie Reynolds Conservation Studio" there, albeit discreetly in white letters on a white wall.

On the almost ten meter long work table behind the door there are sandbags and glass plates next to brightly painted strips of cardboard.

Sequences of movements can be seen on the strips: a dancer in a red costume balancing on the rope, a girl feeding the chickens, a rider overcoming a hurdle with his horse.

The so-called animation strips belonged to a zoetrope, a forerunner of the film projector, says curator Niebel.

They too need a refresher.

The hand-painted pictures are cleaned with a magnifying glass and cotton swabs before they are shown on the second floor of the museum in the exhibition "The Path To Cinema".

Visitors look at the historical Oscar sculptures at the opening of the exhibition.

Photo: LAT/Polaris/Laif

"Many of the strips date from the first half of the 19th century and must not be exposed to the light for too long," Niebel explains the rotation principle of the showcases.

After a few months under the artificial light of the glass cases, the collectibles are exchanged to protect them.

It is a challenge, says the Hessian native, to find the right balance between conservation and exhibition.

“As curators, we want to show the relics of filmmaking to as many visitors as possible.

The restorers are primarily concerned with preserving the pieces, ideally without too much light and at a constant temperature,” says Niebel.

"Sometimes it's difficult to reconcile both."

Changing the exhibits has proven to be a compromise that everyone can live with.

On the regular route from the warehouse to the glass case, in addition to the animation strips, a peep show, a more than 150-year-old wooden box with a peephole, also makes a stop in the restoration workshop.

The brown paper the box was wrapped in is peeling off at the corners.

The drawing of a boy feeding birds in front of a winter landscape is torn on the front of the box.

The postcard-sized image of a medieval castle, intended as the background for the peep show, also ripples across its entire width.

The piece from the private museum of the late American Richard Balzer, probably the largest collection from before the invention of cinematography, needs special attention on this day.

The fibers of the paper have become brittle over the decades, and colorful mold is spreading.

Paper, says Hunter, regardless of whether it is made from cellulose or wood fibers, is a sensitive material.

Room temperatures of more than 18 degrees bothered him, as did humidity.

Like in the movies: Hollywood's past comes alive in the Museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The restorer uses calcium hydroxide to neutralize unwanted acids in the cladding of the historical peep-show.

She stabilizes tears and holes with wafer-thin, transparent Japanese paper.” The point is to limit yourself to what is necessary.

We try to stay as close to the original as possible,” says Hunter.

Tom Hanks, Hollywood star, Oscar winner and one of the grandees of the Academy Museum, will be delighted.

The "Forrest Gump" actor has chosen the exhibition "The Way to the Cinema" with precursors of modern film art such as camera obscura, peep show and lanterna magica as his favorite place in the almost 30,000 square meter museum.


How much restoration work went into some of the exhibits is usually hidden from visitors to the former May Company Building.

Niebel still remembers rescuing the ruby ​​red pumps that Judy Garland wore in the film musical The Wizard of Oz more than 80 years ago.

“The mix of leather, silk fabric, rhinestones, glass beads, felt and sequins was intricate.

The individual materials age differently and expand differently over the decades.

When the Ruby Slippers came to us, they had tears, many of the sequins were missing,” says the curator.

The thought of seeing one of the most iconic props in film history on the restoration table made the team at Debbie Reynolds Conservation Studio work even more cautiously than usual.

The story of the "Wizard of Oz", Hollywood's version of L.

Frank Baum's fantasy novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" has not only been one of the most popular family films in the United States for generations.

As one of the first productions in Technicolor, the film is also one of the technical highlights of the American film industry.

In a new light: Among the most prominent exhibits are Judy Garland's pumps from the film musical "The Wizard of Oz".

It is thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio that the Ruby Slippers found their way into the Academy Museum.

Ten years ago, the Oscar winner, along with Steven Spielberg, collected among filmmakers to bid for the shoes that Garland wore as Dorothy on the yellow brick path.

Then the work began.

The individual materials were examined using micro X-ray fluorescence and FTIR spectrometers to find out how they could best be preserved.

Then loose threads were pulled through the original holes again, and the sole was re-glued in some places.

The sequins, more than 2000 per shoe, required special care.

"Under the microscope, we cleaned each of the plastic plates with a brush and pipette, loose plates were locked again," says Hunter.

She held back on lost sequins.

"It's about authenticity, not perfection."

The Ruby Slippers, one of five surviving pairs, shine today in a glass case in the Academy Museum - under reddish light, at around 20 degrees and only when Judy Garland's iconic pumps are not recovering in a well-chilled safe.

Debbie Reynolds, who owned a pair of the ruby ​​red shoes herself, would have loved it.

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