Royal Docks: How Disney100: The Exhibition is packed with cultural touchstones for all to enjoy

Exhibition at Excel showcases stories from a century of output by the world famous entertainment company

Disney100: The Exhibition is currently on show at Excel in Royal Docks

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In a world where people’s experiences and cultural references are increasingly diffuse, Disney100: The Exhibition prompts a conversation pretty much anyone can participate in.

The question: “What’s your favourite Disney movie?” is one that, perhaps, unites more people globally under the umbrella of a single producer than any other.  

Its answers are frequently generational, surprising and in some cases contested – can Marvel and Star Wars really be counted when so much of the original development of those brands happened before they were brought into the fold?

But almost invariably, it’s a question that’s met with fondness and warmth – often a connection to a childhood remembered or time spent with one’s own children.

That, of course, is before we even consider the TV output, the theme parks and the theatre shows. 

With such resonance in the public mind, curating an exhibition that celebrates the output of The Walt Disney Company to mark its centenary, is a mammoth undertaking. 

Little wonder, perhaps, that this creative titan has risen to that challenge with characteristic zeal resulting in Disney100: The Exhibition running at Excel in Royal Docks until January 21. 

“Selecting the exhibits was probably the biggest challenge we had because Disney has an embarrassment of riches in terms of the assets we can show,” said Matthew Adams, manager, exhibitions for the Walt Disney Archives.

Matthew Adams of the Walt Disney Archives

“We’ve had 100 years and we have so many different business units now which have all contributed to Disney’s success, so it was really difficult.

“The great thing about Disney is, because it’s been around for so long, I can’t think of another company that has left such an indelible mark on people’s lives.

“There are meaningful moments for baby boomers all the way up to the children of today and everyone in between.

“I think about all the films I watched as a kid including all the movies like Hocus Pocus that came out in the 1990s.

“I was also a big fan of Sword In The Stone – those are two that really resonated with me when I saw props from the movies, so I can imagine how other people will feel.

“I often joke with people that the archives are the keepers of their childhood memories – but I also really mean it.

“Many are unique and we have both a domestic version of the exhibition in the US and an international touring collection, so deciding what would be in each was challenging.”

With the exception of the first gallery – which tells the story of how Walt set up the company and created his first animations including the pioneering Steamboat Willie with its synchronised soundtrack – the exhibition is not arranged chronologically.

The exhibition features a host of exhibits from Disney’s first 100 years

Instead its nine galleries are thematic, each looking at a different aspect of the company’s operations. 

“That really helped us narrow down what we were going to put on show,” said Matthew, who started off his career in theatre before going on to work at 20th Century Fox in themed entertainment and joining Disney when it bought his previous employer.

“Everything after the first gallery is based on the philosophy of Walt Disney – whether that’s storytelling, creating believable characters, adventure and discovery and so on, which helped us decide what to include. 

“Then we were only selecting exhibits that were in service to that story of each gallery.

“For example, everything in the music gallery helps tell the story of how important the music and sound effects are in Disney films.

“One thing that Disney is really well known for and comes into clear view when you’re in the exhibition, is the attention to detail with everything the company does.

“For instance there’s a display about creating the sound effects and you would never think those noises were made in the way they were – the minds that came up with those ideas were pretty astounding.

There’s also an extensive gift shop selling official merchandise

“Another example is when you’re looking at the costumes for The Lion King stage show and the level of detail that goes into them, which audiences would never even see at a distance.

“It’s those things that make the Disney difference.

“In The Illusion Of Life gallery, we talk about all these individual characters and what makes them seem real.

“There are the minute personality details, which may seem obscure and unimportant, but combine to create the effect of a living, breathing character.

“To me, seeing those things is a ‘wow moment’.

“In the exhibition, you really get a sense that everyone, from Walt Disney up to the people who work for the company today, has been really passionate about the work and our history, our legacy, and the stories we continue to tell today.

“These people really believe in it and really love it. 

“They realise what they are doing has made a huge impact on their lives and makes a real impact on other people’s lives – that’s why being part of the exhibition is really something special for me.”

That Disney100: The Exhibition is in the UK is apt.

Walt and the company he built has had a long association with Britain.

Its first live action film, 1950’s Treasure Island, was shot in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire with Robert Newton creating a host of immortal pirate tropes as the wild-eyed, one-legged Long John Silver.

Walt also traced his roots to the village of Norton Disney in Lincolnshire, visiting during filming and cementing the link by placing his family’s coat of arms above the archway to the company’s famous castle.

“This started something that was consistent with many of the company’s most famous stories like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs And Broomsticks, which feature in the exhibition,” said Matthew.

The exhibition features all kinds of exhibits including costumes from live action movies

“There’s a definite affinity with London and the UK. I hope that seeing the exhibition will reignite people’s passion and love for Disney films, parks and everything else we produce.

“There’s so much content out there these days – it’s over-saturated – but it’s really nice spending an hour or two going back and looking at those touchstone moments in our lives, saying: ‘I remember this being really important in my life’ and remembering.

“An exhibition spanning 100 years is a really huge moment that will only come once in our lifetimes, so we want everyone to feel inspired and happy when they leave, and hopeful about the future.”

Spare a thought, then, for the next generation who will likely have more than double the archive to draw on when 200 years have passed. 

“The collection is huge and already spans multiple buildings and locations,” said Matthew.

“We have buildings that are dedicated to our three-dimensional assets, others that are dedicated to our photo collection – it is a pretty enormous operational undertaking.

“We rely on the actual creators and the production teams of those films or park attractions to tell us what’s important to keep.

“Similarly, with park attractions, when they are changed or updated, we ask what the fans’ most popular items are and which are worth keeping.

“We wish we could keep everything, but that’s just not possible when we have a finite amount of space and, with the advent of Disney+, output has increased significantly.” 

Fortunately, thanks to the acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, there is potentially a solution.

That deal means it now owns the warehouse from Indiana Jones flick Raiders Of The Lost Ark – plenty of room for another century of stuff. 

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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