The Academy Awards Museum Will Create New Exhibition on Hollywood’s Jewish Roots in Response to Criticism

When the museum opened last year, industry leaders and donors expressed disappointment at what they saw as a stunning omission in the exhibition content

Large beige building with golden sign that reads Academy Museum
The Academy Museum of Motions Pictures received backlash on its opening for failing to portray the stories of Hollywood's Jewish founders. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Upon touring the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt was confused by the absence of displays recognizing one notable demographic prevalent in Hollywood’s history. “As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’” Greenblatt tells Rolling Stone’s Tatiana Siegel.

He wasn’t the only one concerned by the oversight. According to the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, the museum was “barraged by complaints” from Jewish leaders and supporters of the institution regarding the lack of exhibit content focused on the Jewish founders of Hollywood. Among the voices of displeasure was major donor and film and television producer Haim Saban, who donated $50 million to the museum per Hollywood Reporter’s Gary Baum. Producer John Goldwyn, grandson of industry founder Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM fame), described the matter as “an egregious oversight.”

That oversight is now being rectified. Come spring 2023, the museum plans to install a permanent exhibition called “Hollywoodland,” which curator Dara Jaffe says will examine the origins of the film industry through the lives and achievements of the major studio founders, most of whom were Jewish, and those of some lesser-known Jewish filmmakers, according to the New York Times.

Museum director Bill Kramer tells the Times the museum had always intended to explore Hollywood’s Jewish origins in a temporary exhibition, saying “we’ve long had this on our list to do, and we knew this was going to be in our first rotations….Representation is so important. We heard that [criticism] and we take that seriously. When you talk about the founding of Hollywood studios, you’re talking about the Jewish founders.”

Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Garty Baum explains that the founders of the major Hollywood studios were mostly Ashkenazi Jews excluded from high-status sectors like finance. Future titans of entertainment Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, Jack and Harry Warner and Carl Laemmle, among others sought a fresh start in California, away from communities where they felt their Jewish identity would work against them.

“You have to understand that Hollywood in its very inception was formed out of a fear that its founders—and those who maintained the industry—would be identified as Jews,” Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, an influential history of the Jewish studio heads, tells the New York Times. “It’s almost fitting that a museum devoted to the history of Hollywood would incorporate in its very evolution this fear and sensitivity.”

It’s unclear why the museum neglected to include the Jewish Hollywood experience when its creators took such care to ensure diverse representation among its exhibitions. The museum has denoted a commitment to “embrace diversity and be radically inclusive” as one of its guiding principles, per the New York Times.

That principle has been exemplified in the museum’s slated schedule of rotating exhibitions, among them an exhibition on the work of Black filmmakers from the inception of motion picture to the civil rights movement, an in-depth examination of the making of The Godfather and a retrospective of the work of French New Wave director Agnès Varda, according to the Los Angeles Times Mary McNamara. As Jackie Mansky wrote for Smithsonian when the museum opened, “What becomes apparent the longer you linger here, is that this museum tells an optimistic story, dreaming about what the industry’s future could be.”

Kramer tells the Los Angeles Times that while the organization has a five-year plan already mapped out, public discourse and feedback is important. “We’ve created an institution intentionally to bring in many stories…We knew when we opened we would get notes from people about things they would like to see,” he says. “This is a much larger issue than what is happening with our museum, but we can have a conversation around that, about Jewish representation in Hollywood and also in the larger culture.”