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"Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons" exhibit opens at The Walt Disney Family Museum

"Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons" exhibit opens at The Walt Disney Family Museum

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You want to know Where The Wild Things Are? Check out The Walt Disney Family Museum at The Presidio of San Francisco between now until July 7.

The WDFMuseum recently unveiled a traveling exhibit honoring author and illustrator Maurice Sendak on the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Where The Wild Things Are ." Sendak's beloved book revolutionized children's literature in its depiction of Max, a realistic, moody young boy with a fierce imagination. In the story, filled with wonderful art, Max ventures forth in his own creative wilderness to confront his demons -- and returns home in time for supper.

Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

At first blush, Walt Disney and Maurice Sendak may seem an odd pairing. But that's not the way WDFMuseum CEO Gabriella Calicchio or guest curator Anel Muller see it.

In an interview days before resigning her post as CEO (see related sidebar), Calicchio explained the museum's three-track approach to special exhibitions and programming:

"The first track is artists who inspired or influenced Walt Disney and his animators. So the first exhibition we did in the theater gallery was 'Heinrich Kley: From Fantasy to Fantasia.' The second track is artists who worked at the studio during Walt's lifetime, so we featured 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic' in our special exhibition hall. The third track is artists who were inspired or influenced by Walt Disney and so this (Sendak exhibit) fits into that category."

Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

She then explained that Sendak was born in 1928, the same year as Mickey Mouse. Sendak "absolutely loved Mickey Mouse. As a child, he would borrow his sister's white gloves and pretend he was Mickey Mouse. He saw 'Fantasia ' as a 12-year-old and it changed his life. And he had a lifelong adoration of Walt Disney, particularly for the creation of Mickey Mouse. It made total sense that he fit into that third category as an artist inspired and influenced by Walt Disney."

One display panel next to a picture of Sendak with a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse includes a few quotes from him: "Oh, I adored Mickey Mouse when I was a child. He was the emblem of happiness and funniness. ... We're both about the same age; we're about a month apart. He was the little brother I always wanted."

Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

As a traveling exhibit, all the art was chosen and some of the text had been prepared before it arrived at the WDFMuseum. Guest curator Muller, a WDFMuseum staff member, talked about her role in the exhibition.

"Because of the layout and this space, we felt we needed more material and we wanted to tell more of a story." Muller added information, mostly quotes, and then worked to make the exhibit "fit into our Museum and how we present things."

"Three pieces in the show have Mickey Mouse in them. Maurice Sendak was a huge Mickey Mouse fan and it made sense to have a panel specifically about that because otherwise why would he be featured at the Walt Disney Family Museum? It was one of the easiest pieces of research I did."

A photograph from 1973 showing Maurice Sendak and part of his Mickey Mouse
collection, which eventually grew to include a thousand different items.
Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

Muller also recounted that Sendak reportedly once told Diane Disney Miller that as a young boy he had sent a letter to Walt Disney asking Disney to adopt him.

"Yes, (Sendak) was a super fan," Muller continued, "but I think a lot of the ways he saw life are parallel to Walt Disney's: Wanting to create something for the masses. Sendak didn't want to be known as a kiddie book author and I don't think Walt Disney wanted to be known as a kiddie movie maker. He was very aware however that what he was doing was being read by children. And he believed in being honest with children. Through many of the films that Walt did over the years, it's the same feeling: Bambi 's mother dies. Walt doesn't try to hide the facts."

The Sendak exhibit focuses a great deal of attention on "Where The Wild Things Are" but also includes some other art, including illustrations of Macbeth he did as a homework assignment for his 10th-grade teacher Grace Warshauer. She nutured his artistic talents and the two stayed in touch until her death in 2002. The exhibit also features a family resource room, a place that literally invites children of all ages to write on the walls and read a copy of "Where The Wild Things Are" or one of Sendak's many other books.

Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

"Certainly the idea that this exhibition would appeal to children of all ages was part of our consideration," Calicchio said, touting the family resource room. "That's something we've never done before and were really interested in seeing how that works. We hope that it's used by young children and adults as well."

"It will be great to see how our visitors respond to it," Muller added.

I used our meeting as an opportunity to ask Calicchio about a few policy changes at the WDFMuseum as well as recent membership and attendance gains. Remember this interview was just a few days prior to her resignation.

Departing WDFMuseum CEO Gabriella Calicchio
Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum
All rights reserved

"I think that we've done things to be more accessible. We now allow strollers in the galleries, which they didn't allow when I first arrived. We allow photography. ... Almost every other museum in this country allows photography. It was the right thing to do. The same with strollers. I don't know if you've ever been bothered by a stroller in the galleries, but I haven't. We're doing things that hopefully make everyone feel more welcomed and comfortable."

In 2012, attendance increased by 13 percent from 2011. The first quarter of 2013 saw a 71 percent increase from the first quarter of 2012. Between January and March, some 32,600 people had visited the WDFMuseum. There's no doubt that the special, separate-ticket exhibition in honor of Snow White 's 75th anniversary -- with plans for it announced when the museum first opened in 2009 -- played a huge role in the last quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.

"The numbers are astounding, especially this last quarter," Calicchio said. "I think it's a lot of things. There's a lot more going on at the museum than there probably was in the first year, when they were just getting up and going. ... This year alone, we're doing five special exhibitions, two in the theater gallery and three here in the special exhibitions hall. I think that has a major impact on the visibility and attention we're getting both from the media and the public.

Copyright The Walt Disney Family Museum.
All rights reserved

"I think I've put together an amazing team of people who are really, really good at what they do and passionate about what they do. And the word is getting out there. It's beginning to work. I think it's a whole number of things, but at the core of it is our exhibitions, our programs and what we offer in our core galleries."

As CEO, Calicchio saw the role of the museum as going beyond preserving Walt Disney's legacy. "We don't want to just preserve the legacy; we want to activate the legacy. That's what will make this place matter. That's how we'll make sure Walt Disney's legacy is infinite and goes on and on and impacts people forever. It's one thing to preserve; it's another to activate, to communicate and have impact. And Walt Disney had incredible impact on so many, many people. We want to help continue that."

To learn more about the museum, visit www.WaltDisney.org.