Mice, Technology, and Walt Disney: The Walt Disney Family Museum

I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco with my wife and some friends, to celebrate my wife's birthday.  I was curious as it is – it's a museum containing a great deal of memorabilia about Walt Disney, and a chronology of his life, and run by his eldest daughter.  Disney's influence on our modern media can't be understated, so I figure a review was in order.

However, after going to the museum I'm going to have to split this review into two parts for you, my progeek audience.  One part will review the museum, the other will deal with some of the insights I had there.

To put it simply, it's a very geeky place – and Walt Disney was, when you think of it, a progeek.

The Museum is in an odd building, actually a bit small, but it crams an absolute ton of material into it.  Every nook and cranny is filled with something, from memorabilia to a timeline to a video screen.  It's a modest building that's huge inside in a way I normally associate with mysterious police phone boxes.

Going through the museum, you go room-to-room, each covering a different phase of Disney's life or part of his efforts, each containing a variety of memorabilia, displays, and so forth, and each in a different style.  It's very engaging, and almost disorienting as you are simply overwhelmed with a sheer amount of stuff.

Frankly, the museum feels like it's its own exhbiit, like it's designed like a ride or show or similar entertainment at one of the Disney parks.  It has that friendly, large, media-dense feel.  You have to take your time here.

The level of details, the chronology, and the sheer amount of stuff come together, wheny ou take your time, to paint a picture of both Walt Disney, and the times he lived in during his life.  There's a sense of perspective about it all, a seemingly larger-than-life man, but living through many complex, wild, and changing eras.  You're used to hearing how great Disney is, but he lived through two wars and some tough times, he made mistakes, and he had his failures.

The final capper on the informative museum is the fact that, frankly, it isn't exactly Walt Disney haiography.  It's more a portrait of an interesting, brilliant, but ultimately human man.  Praise for his work is mixed in with stories of petty arguments and bad decisions.  His stories of loyalty are mixed with tales where he was angered at betrayal.  Flops and misfired decisions are clearly noted.  Disney's dark side has been noted in many works, and though the museum is in praise of him, it doesn't exactly whitewash him either.

On a technical level?  Pure geek fuel.  Want to see the earliest live action/animation mixtures?  See a wall of screens showing old nature shows while you look at the Golden Gate Bridge?  Look in awe at a minature "imagined Disneyland"?  It's here.  You could geek our here on the sheer technology and architecture.

So in my summary, pretty much a must-visit if you have any interest in Disney.  If you're a progeek, you may need to be pried away from some displays . . .

I'm not a huge fan of Walt Disney.  I'm not a detractor either.  He was obviously a brilliant man who had his own significant flaws.  He was definitely an innovator on many fronts, and an inspiration to many.  I recognize his contributions, if in a colder and more clinical way than some.

The museum, oddly, gave me a far more human sense of him.

The thing I took from the museum about the man was that it was very appropriate for it to be in the Bay Area, because simply, Walt Disney would have been at home in Silicon Valley.  He was in animation when it was a starting technology.  He took chances on media ventures that seemed impossible (say, a full-length animated Snow White movie).  At times he had to invent or have people invent new things that didn't exist.  He moved with the times.

If you'd plunked a young Walt Disney down in San Jose in the 90's, he'd be among people that were a lot like him, good and bad.

That gave me a new appreciation for the man – and what we can learn from him.  He was there when new media was invented – an invented some of it.  He saw changes – and often caused some of them.

Walt Disney himself has a strange standing among the geeks.  To some he's about fond childhood memories.  To others the label of a large company (or overlarge to some).  Some see him as a sign of a conservative approach to media and life.  Yet others may seem him as a founder whose ideas need to be re-invented with things like Kingdom Hearts (a game, I think, he would have approved of).

I think we geeks and progeeks should realize he was basically one of us – imaginative, unpredictable, obsessive, focused, at times hard to get along with, and ultimately trying to make things happen.  He lived through wild and changing times – and came out ahead.

His life is something that it may benefit us to study, no matter what we think of him.

Steven Savage