The Culture First Look

George Lucas to build $1 billion museum. How hard is it to preserve movie memorabilia?

George Lucas settles on Los Angeles as the site for his Museum of Narrative Art, but it wasn't an easy process. 

This undated file concept design provided by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art shows a rendering of their proposed museum in Exposition Park in Los Angeles. 'Star Wars' creator George Lucas and his team announced Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, they have chosen Los Angeles over San Francisco as the home of the museum that will showcase his work.
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art/AP/File
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Not too long from now in a city not so far away, "Star Wars" and art fans alike will be able to enjoy George Lucas’s personal collection of art and movie memorabilia.

The filmmaker announced Wednesday that Los Angeles will be home to his futuristic Museum of Narrative Art, bringing to a close a years-long quest to find a site to publicly display his extensive collection. While creating a destination for a loyal fan base would seem like an obvious decision for any city or museum, locating a suitable space can be easier said than done, as the late Debbie Reynolds discovered.

Mr. Lucas will build his museum in L.A.’s Exposition Park, which is quickly becoming a tourist hub, already featuring the California Science Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the California African American Museum. Visitors will be able to see thousands of paintings and illustrations, including works from Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, as well as movie memorabilia, such as the original Darth Vader helmet.

Also in the running was San Francisco’s scenic, but less accessible, Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Both cities desired not only the prestige the museum would bring, but also its economic impact. In addition to increased tourism, the project will create an estimated thousands of jobs, at least 1,000 of them permanent. Lucas will personally fund nearly the entirety of the $1 billion project that includes an endowment of at least $400 million.

“It feels like this incredible gift has come home. I always thought Los Angeles was the natural place to spread the vision of George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, to make art and creativity accessible and inspirational to the next generation,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times of the filmmaker and his wife “It’s a natural place to have this museum in the creative capital of the world and in the geographic center of the city. It’s a banner day for L.A.”

But for years the project was something of a hot potato. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lucas first tried to erect the museum in his home city of San Francisco in 2009, but the community opposed building in a historical park. He met similar resistance in Chicago, the birthplace of his wife.

It was a struggle that would have been familiar to another entertainer with deep ties to the "Star Wars" universe. Debbie Reynolds, mother of Carrie Fisher who played Princess Leia in "Star Wars," painstakingly rescued thousands of props and costumes steeped in Hollywood history from the MGM auction block, and continued to add to her collection over the years. The Wall Street Journal described a few of the highlights in 2011:

Judy Garland's ruby-red slippers and cotton dress from "The Wizard of Oz," Charlie Chaplin's signature bowler, and the "drapery" hat Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) donned to woo Rhett Butler are just a handful of the pieces selectively and methodically acquired over four decades by Debbie Reynolds.

She, too, spent years trying to find the items a home, plans falling through no fewer than seven times before finally deciding to sell. At one point she even approached George Lucas as a financier.

She says she had to accept that "you can't be a one-woman parade," especially if you are the only one picking up the tab. Even though the creditors are closing in, Reynolds's eyes well up at the thought of surrendering her long-fought battle to preserve this portion of film history, and she says that selling this collection is "the hardest thing I have ever done."

But her tale isn’t all bitter. The auction raised a reported $25 million, and she was able to keep some of her favorites, including a statue of the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film of the same name, as reported by Vanity Fair.

Today, George Lucas fans are celebrating the salvation of his collection from the same fate. The museum’s construction will begin this year, with the opening planned for 2021, when, together with Disney's upcoming Star Wars Land amusement park, it will make L.A. even more of a mecca for fans of the space opera. 

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