Viewpoints

Bringing Living History into Our Living Rooms? A Different "Take" on Disney's America

Susan Ariel Aaronson, March 1995

Editor's Note: Disney has cancelled its plans to build a history theme park in northern Virginia. Historians, however, continue to debate some of the important issues that Disney's proposed project brought to light. In the following Viewpoints Forum, five historians write about what they think projects like Disney's America mean for historians and history. The forum includes articles by Ronald G. Walters (Johns Hopkins Univ.), Cindy S. Aron (Univ. of Virginia), Linda Shopes (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Comm.), Alon Confino (Univ. of Virginia), and Susan Ariel Aaronson (Brookings Inst.).

When Disney first announced its plans for its theme park, company officials briefly mentioned that they would rely on virtual reality rides to convey history. They stated that by providing a three-dimensional view of U.S. history, the park would make visitors "high on history." Although Disney has pulled out of Manassas, the company may still proceed with a virtual reality history theme park elsewhere. I had my epiphany about Disney's America when I began exploring the technology behind the company's hype.

Virtual reality technology can democratize the historian's craft; it has the potential to bring living history to our living rooms. Embedded in the debate over Disney's desire to use our nation's history for profit was an important issue: the implications of virtual reality technology for how history is conveyed, to whom history is conveyed, and for how the public understands history.

In this essay I explore how virtual reality technology may alter the relationship between historian and audience. I also focus on how Disney has involved historians in its efforts to present history.

The name virtual reality applies to computer-driven technologies that allow people to feel as if they are in other environments. Using this technology, individuals experience a simulation of sense data that make up real-world experience. In this simulated environment, individuals can work, interact, enter, exit, travel, test, play squash, explore, or experience fear, confusion, and a myriad of other emotions and sensations. The simulated environment comes from the melding of several different technologies: computers that can create constantly changing three-dimensional graphics, a helmet with display screens that fall in front of the viewer's eyes (the most common virtual reality viewing system), and electronic sensors set inside the helmet to change the scene as the viewer's head moves.

As a technology in its infancy, virtual reality has many limitations. The helmet is often clumsy and ill fitting; its resolution is often poor. It cannot accurately simulate a sense of touch, although it can replicate the imbalance between senses (for example, when you work upside down in space, your visual sense dominates your sense of gravity.) The technology is bulky, expensive, and requires support from a wide range of expensive computer machinery. Most important, virtual reality is only as good as the software that undergirds it and the people that design this software.

In the last decade, virtual reality has been tapped for a variety of purposes. It has been used, for example, to teach medicine and molecular engineering, to explore ancient Egypt, to simulate flight conditions, and to explore space. With a well-designed virtual reality program, astronauts in training see a computer-generated three-dimensional model of the moon. They can practice lifting moon rocks and walking in space. LunaCorp of Arlington, Virginia, plans to send a rover to the moon in 1997 "to explore the Apollo 11 landing site and other `historic' areas." Company officials believe this will be the first attempt to let the public participate in space exploration.

Historians of technology have taught us that some new technologies have enabled more Americans (not just the rich and powerful) to make and tell history. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, the decline in the price of radios and televisions allowed individuals to rapidly learn about national and international news and quickly convey their responses to their representatives. In the 1980s, as events in Iraq and China showed us, satellites and fax machines made this process even more instantaneous. Today, computers, cable television, and information networks make global discussion and transfer of data easy and instantaneous. These technologies democratize information, giving individuals all over the world the power to evaluate and massage information.

This technology may also change both how teachers convey and how students learn history. As Carol Stoker of NASA recently noted, virtual reality will allow "everyone to experience events as if they were actually there." But the program also empowers the audience to act as historians, reporting their own conclusions about what happened and why. If virtual reality programs are done right (and that is a big if), virtual reality has the potential to alter the relationship between historian, history, and audience.

The Walt Disney Company has a history of using history for profit. Like every other publicly listed company, Disney is constantly writing and rewriting its history in official documents such as annual and quarterly reports. Many baby boomers first learned history from films like Johnny Tremain and Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. And the company has long employed historians as advisers for its theme parks and movies.

Disney also has a glorious history of innovation. Walt Disney Imagineering developed the Western Hemisphere's first operating monorail and lifelike speaking robots (audioanimatronics). According to John Snoddy, show director for the Virtual Reality Project at Disney Imagineering, Disney has been following virtual reality technology since 1987, as a tool for its artists.

At Disney's EPCOT Center in Florida, visitors can explore the potential of virtual reality. Guests watch as imagineers demonstrate how advanced computer graphics are used to create virtual reality experience, combining new technologies for animation, computer graphics, three-dimensional sound, and mapping. Every ten minutes, four individuals can go on a virtual technology ride, "Aladdin's Magic Carpet," and fly over the city of Agrabah, "circling its minarets and racing through its narrow streets and alleys. Each test pilot, seated on a carpet, views the experience on wide-angle television screens within a head mounted display visor." Pilots can control the images seen by "grasping the ... carpet." As they turn and dive, they may "feel" the impact should they "collide" with buildings. Disney has surveyed many of these guest pilots who stressed that they feel as if they are really flying. Not surprisingly, the imagineers concluded that if this "paradigm shift" can work for a fantasy world built by an artist, it may also be effective for a reproduction of real events.

Although the imagineers are enthusiastic about the technology, they are well aware of its limitations. In a telephone discussion, Snoddy emphasized that virtual reality cannot teach facts or chronologies. Virtual reality can't replace the book or the training and years of archival experience that experts have; it may simply supplement existing tools for teaching history. Thus, Disney will need the assistance of historians to create the virtual past.

But the company has done little to turn historians into advocates or colleagues. On one hand, Michael Eisner, chair of the Walt Disney Company, has said that "if we can help to excite students about history, to ... read a book on history ... it would be a good thing." But he also said that "historians are maybe overly threatened by the project." Other Disney officials have criticized how historians tell history. A Disney creative director argued that the park could "make you feel what it was like to be a slave." The remark was not only insensitive and offensive, it conveyed an arrogance that fantasy and past reality are equally replicable.

In fact, it seems to me that Disney's relationship with historians shows how virtual reality and history might be "done wrong." In March 1994, Disney invited some 30 historians to EPCOT to discuss the initial plans for Disney's America. According to several of the participants, the historians agreed that America's history was not always a pretty picture, suitable for a fun filled family vacation. Several of the advisers expressed concern that Disney could not understand the complexities of American history.

I recently interviewed four prominent historians who had been consulted on the Disney's America Project: Eric Foner of Columbia University, James Oliver Horton of George Washington University, and Joyce Appleby and Gary Nash of UCLA. None of these historians had been shown any mock ups of virtual reality programs, rides, or plans. Although Foner and Horton were consistently cited by the press as consultants to Disney on the project, neither was actually involved in advising on the Disney's America project at the time of my interviews with them (September and October 1994). However, both Foner and Horton had had contact with senior Disney officials, including Eisner. Moreover, their experience with the company showed that the company wanted to "do right" by history and historians. Foner became a consultant to Disney after he criticized the way history had been portrayed at current Disney exhibitions. Horton was contacted by Disney executives after he wrote an article assessing how history museums convey (or ignore) African American history.

These two historians were convinced that senior company officials wanted to hear and learn about their perspectives. Both Professors Horton and Foner felt that Eisner was a good listener and a quick student of history. And yet their personal contact with the company was not reassuring. All four professors fear a sanitized, pretty, entertaining presentation of the American experience.

At best, we historians are often technological illiterates, taking great pride in our ability to use fax machines, VCRs, and computers. At worst, we are Luddites, fearing new technologies. I believe this may color our response to virtual reality technology and its potential for the "telling" of history. Yet new technologies such as virtual reality may expand the demand for history at the same time that they ensure that historians have no monopoly over supply. Thus, we historians should learn to use these technologies.

In 1977, I worked as a research assistant at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Scientific Research. When a miniseries on the Holocaust was announced, some of my colleagues who were survivors denounced the program as a cartoon version of their nightmare and their history. Yet the series was widely watched in the United States and overseas. It led to a major revision of the German school curriculum and inspired greater interest in Holocaust history. For months thereafter, the YIVO library was packed with students inspired by that great teaching tool: television.

Disney's history theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, may be history, but historians should heed what such plans may portend for the future of the past. A simulation of experience may be escapist fun, but it may also be a tool to bolster public understanding of authentic experience. If historians don't get involved in designing and conveying simulations of the past, that past will be another country.

—Susan Ariel Aaronson is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.