Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa Still Falls Short of Its Potential

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2012-09-18 023This week I visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa for the first time since my visit right after it opened in August 2002. This museum has its quirks and amusements, and the staff and docents there are very nice, but my opinion about the exhibits hasn’t changed. The museum still falls short of its potential.

I vaguely remembered that in 2002 I had returned from the museum a little frustrated and felt inspired that evening to write a review. I had meant to submit it to one of the San Francisco Bay Area newspapers, but I never returned to it after writing the first draft.

I still have it 11 years later, and now I post it here. Some of the exhibits have changed, and there seems to be a bit more 1960s material on display now, but most of the shortcomings outlined in my 2002 review remain in 2013. Also, note that admission is now $10 for adults.

Charles M. Schulz Museum Could Be More Than a Lightweight (August 2002)

Even cartoonists can now aspire to their own museums if they follow the right formula. Draw a comic strip for 50 years and make it popular among international audiences of all ages. Extensively license the characters for commercial purposes. Place the comic strip on a higher intellectual plane than Garfield, while still making the strip accessible to readers who prefer light humor on their comic pages.

Charles M. Schulz provided a model for cartoonist immortality with his Peanuts comic strip and animated Charlie Brown cartoons. In August, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center opened in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz – a Minnesota native – lived during most of the time that he drew the Peanuts comic strip. The museum serves as a tribute to Schulz and focuses on the universal appeal of his creation.

The beautiful Charles M. Schulz Museum building was designed by C. David Robinson Architects in San Francisco. Mr. Robinson died in 2008.

The beautiful Charles M. Schulz Museum building was designed by C. David Robinson Architects in San Francisco. Mr. Robinson died in 2008.

As part of the tribute, the ground floor features other artists’ comic strips saluting Schulz after his death in February 2000. A strange sort of humor results from the incongruity of Peanuts characters inserted in melodramas with realistically drawn figures. There is also art inspired by Peanuts with text explaining how impressive it is.

Also displayed on the ground floor are enlarged classic Peanuts strips and cartoon layouts that draw smiles and snickers from visitors. Women in particular seem to enjoy the strips that show Charlie Brown’s hapless dreams of winning the “Little Red-Haired Girl.” To emphasize the international nature of the Peanuts phenomenon, a display shows Peanuts books translated in more than a dozen languages.

Visitors looking for more substance from the exhibits are likely to be disappointed and even somewhat bored. Granted, a cartoonist may not be as compelling a subject as a President of the United States, but the museum fails to exploit the potential of encouraging critical thinking about Schulz and exploring the cultural context of Peanuts. One gets the impression that the museum is careful not to examine anything too deeply, lest someone have a negative thought about Schulz or his comic strip.

Although the museum dedicates much of the upper floor to a perfunctory review of events in Schulz’s life, as well as a display of the study where Schulz worked, it reveals little about how Schulz reflected his life and opinions in Peanuts. For example, the museum shows Peanuts strips depicting a fire that burned down Snoopy’s doghouse, but the museum doesn’t say if drawing these strips helped Schulz to cope with the fire that destroyed his own house. Sharp observers will notice the collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories in the study and a reference to The Great Gatsby in one of the comics on display, but visitors must connect them without the museum’s help. And must classical music fans believe that Schulz had his piano-playing character Schroeder play Beethoven because words that start with “B” are funny, as a quotation on the wall suggests? One suspects Schulz appreciated serious music.

Based on the content of Peanuts over 50 years, Schulz seems to be a traditionalist: proud of his military service, thoughtful about his Christian faith, suspicious of rampant commercialism, and appreciative of the simple values of small town America. The museum only provides a superficial treatment of these character traits. Visitors learn that Schulz drew a few sketches while serving in World War II, but the museum reveals nothing about what Schulz saw in wartime or how it affected him, except that Schulz admired General Eisenhower. Schulz’s books on Bible interpretation are on display in his study, but the museum does not discuss his religious beliefs or their reflection in his strips. The museum does not explain how Schulz reconciled his apparent distaste for merchandise licensing with the licensing that made him rich.

At least twice, Schulz was intertwined in racial issues – not surprising considering the dramatic changes in American race relations from 1950 to 2000. In the late 1960s, Schulz introduced a black character, Franklin, into the strip and eliminated a few stale characters. Curious visitors will leave wondering about this development: did outside special interest groups pressure Schulz to add a black character, or was adding the character his own choice, perhaps even against the advice of United Feature Syndicate? Is there any surviving correspondence from newspapers and readers responding to Schulz’s introduction of a black character?

Schulz was drawn into racial politics again in 1999, when the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was revived on Broadway with the director casting the character Schroeder as black and the character Linus as Asian. Schulz was cautious with his criticism, telling the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat about his initial suspicion that the director’s intent was to “come in and show me how wonderfully open-minded and liberal you are.” Despite acquiescing in the end, Schulz was probably fuming about losing control of the images of his characters. This would be an interesting controversy for the museum to explore, but by introducing complicated issues such as artistic license, political correctness, and American attitudes towards race, the museum might offend someone. Better to be bland.

It’s disappointing that the museum generally ignores the influential comic strips Schulz produced in the 1960s, when he transcended traditional comic strip humor by having his characters expound on contemporary pop philosophy and psychology. This more mature content allowed Peanuts to become fashionable among college students and the elite media, and it paved the way for the intellectual ambitions of other comic strips, such as Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County.

Additionally disappointing, the museum says nothing about the meaning of relatively obscure but intriguing characters who briefly appeared in the strip. For example, Schulz introduced a character named “5” with his siblings “3” and “4” in a family that adopted its zip code as its last name. The episode is reminiscent of Soviet parents naming their children after Sputnik to celebrate their country’s technological advancement. Perhaps Schultz’s story line was simply a bit of silliness to encourage children’s laughter, but it could also shed light on Schulz’s views about the relationship between governments and individualism.

Even many of the cult aspects of Peanuts aren’t addressed. For example, the “wah-wah” voices of adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons are classic, yet visitors leave ignorant about why adults did not articulate actual words in these cartoons, nor why adults reverted to normal speech in the last few cartoons. And is it truth or legend that the name of the character Woodstock was inspired by the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival?

There are other problems with the museum beyond content. Display cases containing comic strips are too high for small children to read. Nothing indicates what cartoons are being shown in the video room. A display about the Peanuts relationship with NASA may have excited people 30 years ago, but it is definitely boring in 2002. And certainly the museum should pipe in Vince Guaraldi’s jazz music from the Charlie Brown cartoons.

While technically not part of the museum, the gift shop contains interesting displays of historical Peanuts merchandise and a fine collection of Snoopy dolls for sale. The museum should consider highlighting rather than downplaying this aspect of the Peanuts legacy, because it surely brings back pleasant childhood memories for many visitors.

For the $8 price of adult admission, the Charles M. Schulz Museum provides appreciation for Schulz’s accomplishments and recognition of his humor. But to be meaningful for eternity, the museum needs to reveal more about Schulz and his comic strip’s place in history.

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News Coverage

A ‘Peanuts’ Gang ClubhouseLos Angeles Times – August 13, 2002

Schulz Museum Drawing Fans the World OverSan Francisco Chronicle – August 17, 2002

‘Peanuts’ Museum Turns FiveOrange County Register (originally in Sacramento Bee) – August 13, 2007

‘Peanuts’ Lives: Eight Years after Opening, Santa Rosa’s Schulz Museum Hits Its StrideSanta Rosa Press-Democrat – December 9, 2010

Schulz Museum to Celebrate 10th BirthdaySan Francisco Chronicle – August 8, 2012

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