Friday, December 12, 2008

Is Disney-ification a Good or Bad Thing For Museums?

I remember watching Ken Burn’s The War on PBS last year. What I found most fascinating were the interviews with not only soldiers from the time but the civilians. It was the story of the home front that was the unique contribution of this documentary. The fact that much of what these civilians understood about the war at the time so radically differed from what soldiers in the field were experiencing reveals something profound about the nature of truth even in a time when photography and other modern means of documentation could seemingly serve as indisputable evidence of what was going on. These individuals' later realization of their own ignorance about the involvement of other US civilians, their capture, and imprisonment by the Japanese in places like the Philippines, was especially poignant.

These wartime realities were both underplayed in the contemporaneous press or simply unreported as these wartime civilians were to learn, and this not only exemplifies once again that the first casualty of war is always the truth but something even more revealing about American cultural identity itself. The fact that the truth was kept from the US civilian population during the Second World War is pertinent to a discussion of Disneyification, and how this phenomena is symptomatic of a long standing cultural complacency with both half-truths and inaccuracies regarding our nation’s past and present.

Many may argue that not knowing the truth has had its advantages over being in the know during the critical period of a war, but much of what happens in our own time, the history of yesterday, is also kept from the public or sanitized by those responsible for telling us “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…”. The movie industry has been just as guilty for providing us with an alternative and often more palatable truth than the real. There is no denying the fact that the film medium sadly serves as a significant source for Americans’ understanding of themselves as well as the worlds’ understanding of Americans. I believe that recognizing this fact initiates a responsibility on the part of the industry to be held more accountable for the historical accuracy of their product, or should we simply anticipate greater accountability on the part of the public for finding out the truth?

The film industry’s portrayal of history has been from its beginning selective. Consider for one how many Black cowboys we have seen on the big screen or on TV, when scholars tell us that a third or more were. There is a long standing public complacency with not only movies “Based on a True Story” but many “living” history museums as well; the public simply accepts what is told to them. All of this is better defined as the Disneyification of our history. Disneyification of US history has also been embodied in museum blockbusters. These have the packaging of pop culture and a substance consisting of little scholarship in some cases. They have been the subject of repeated debate among supporters and opponents.

Having pointed out that a product of these blockbusters is sometimes a flawed and exaggerated historical record out of regard for greater marketability, I, nevertheless, see the blockbuster itself as serving a useful role. They draw in ever greater numbers of the public into the museum that might otherwise never come. They are an addition to everything else that the museum does to preserve and educate, and as long as scholarship is maintained by the institution for its many other exhibits and offerings their existence is justified. There is also no reason that the more accepted historical truth couldn't be just as marketable if exhibit planners and developers put their heads together.

Public opinion can be the only means by which the movie industry can be held accountable for what dramatized history it chooses to present. The same goes for the living history museum and other similar institutions. To be fair there has been an increased attention to historical accuracy in recent years by both industry and institutions that peddle the past. My problem with the film industry is that there is often no effort to reveal fact or urge the public to research the real and un-dramatized truth because a film is the product of artistic license. Meanwhile the impressionable are misinformed about history, and this can have avoidable corrupting effects on segments of society.

It seems that it has more often been easier to accept the status quo rather than demand that we all be enlightened about the unsavory side or less interesting side of history that both movie makers and living history museums sometimes make ever more palatable. This sanitization of history in places like Colonial Williamsburg has been and continues to be deliberate and in its extreme potentially destructive, for it avoids rather than addresses for the purpose of educating issues like “slavery, disease, and class oppression.” If historical integrity can’t be maintained graphically in the setting of a living history museum, then it is seemingly that institution’s obligation to clarify this daily for the visiting public in big bold print or by some other means.

According to Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum (1997), Ada Louise Huxtable, the famous architecture critic, said in response to Colonial Williamsburg’s opening that it was “preparing the way for the new world order of Disney Enterprises,” a condition that would “systematically” foster “the replacement of reality with fantasy.” Huxtable believed that such ventures would teach Americans “to prefer---and believe in---a sanitized and selective version of the past.” I think that’s true, for that institution and many others like it continue to thrive. It thrives because they succeeded at finding the right packaging and the right amount of verve to sell history as a commodity just like bread with the “Wonder” label added.

Many have gone further in their condemnation of Colonial Williamsburg characterizing it as metaphorically too clean and a sell out to the obligation of historical integrity for the dollar, or more recently, some eighteen dollars per person or more. Huxtable herself liked the word “sanitized, ” for in addition to the colonial costumes, carriages, and houses that have been so splendidly reproduced or restored on an original colonial site, there were many other realities for the religiously oppressed, the slave, and the indentured (44). Where are the slaves, who numbered more than the whites, and the poor whites in rags, the Catholics hiding and practicing their religion in dark corners, the shanties, the all pervasive smell of sewage and animal manure, the slave auctions, and those bound in chains and dragged through the streets like livestock? These are some of the exclusions from the streets of this colonial capitol.

Colonial Williamsburg staged a re-creation of a slave auction some ten years ago, but the public simply couldn’t handle it. There was much protest, and this reenactment was removed from the schedule. On any given day 200 plus year old reproductions of Colonial Williamsburg’s daily paper are printed and made available to visitors. Prominent in the classified section are advertisements for slave auctions and missing slaves, yet seeing that in the flesh was too much for audiences. The decision to abridge history at places like Colonial Williamsburg perhaps is justified for Americans may simply like their mix of entertainment and history with ice rather than straight up.

Do we want to be reminded of all the inhumanities to our fellow man that underscore the building of this nation by portraying history as it was in the living history museum? Or do we spend the day walking across its pristine village green surrounded by pristine period homes to the sound of horse hooves, ringing anvils, and re-enactors in well- laundered costumes? The visiting public, that has become even more inclusive in recent years, hasn’t demanded much more “history” than they have been getting for the last 60 years at Colonial Williamsburg, so what makes us think that our history of history telling will change at institutions like this? With greater public cognizance of the many embarrassment of our nation’s history , it might be that much of the public simply prefers Disneyification?

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