Viewpoints

In Our Backyard

Ronald Walters, 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.).

"He who takes it into his head to bite hold of Disney by the usual analysis and yardstick, the ordinary requirements, the standard norms, inquiries and demands of 'high' genres of artó will gnash his teeth on empty air."

—Sergei Eisenstein, filmmaker and fan of Walt Disney

"The fact that some of the historians object to it [Disney's America], well I sat through many history classes where I read some of their stuff and I didn't learn anything. It was pretty boring, a lot of the books they've written."

—Michael Eisner, Walt Disney Company executive

Disney's America is still in our backyard, even if the American history theme park is no longer planned for a 3,000-acre parcel of land in northern Virginia, near important Civil War battlefields. Issues raised in the course of debates among Walt Disney Company officials, politicians, local residents and businesspeople, preservationists, and historians persistóand so do issues that either were not raised or were pushed to the margins of the controversy.

Of the latter, the question of the audience's role in such a venture is particularly troubling, both for historians in general and, especially, for those of us interested in the study of American popular culture. The purity of the historic site may have been preserved, but I am less certain about intellectual purity, or at least consistency.

Historians opposed to the project had essentially two major strategies for arguing against it. One was to assert the special nature of the site itself and to deplore the damage likely to be done by the crowds Disney's America would have drawn and the economic development it would have fostered. In OAH Newsletter articles on the subject, this was the approach taken by Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and by historian James M. McPherson, who predicted that the complex "would devastate the real historic landscape for many miles in every direction." That line of opposition had a number of strengths. It drew emotional force—perhaps aided by the popularity of Ken Burns's PBS series The Civil War—by evoking the sacredness of soil consecrated in blood. It had the further advantage of dodging other knotty questions by leaving open the possibility that such an American history theme park might be fine somewhere else. McPherson explicitly acknowledged Disney's "right to practice history," and Moe noted the existence of "alternative locations elsewhere in northern Virginia."

Such arguments were, however, vulnerable on several counts. Disney officials pointed to positive economic benefits the park would bring to the area and denied that there would be any negative effect on nearby sites, some of which were not so nearby. They also played the corporate trump card against historians and claimed that Disney's America would increase interest in "real" historic places and institutions in the area, just as The Civil War spurred sales of books on the subject, perhaps McPherson's among them. Peter Rummell, president of Disney Design and Development, promised that "many park attractions will highlight the wealth of historic sites and learning opportunities in the area, telling park visitors where to go and how to get there."

Fellow historians likewise exposed a weakness in the "sacred soil" argument against Disney's America by questioning whether or not Civil War battlefields were any more sacred or historic than other, less celebrated and less celebratory sites. In the same issue of the OAH Newsletter that carried the pieces by McPherson and Moe, historian John Bodnar faulted Disney opponent David McCullough, another historian, for ignoring "the historic landscapes of, for instance, the Pennsylvania coal fields or South Chicago," sites of other battles "fought to sustain American democracy and economic justice." He asked, "Can anyone imagine 'Protect Historic America' (or even Disney) mounting a crusade to preserve those regions?" That may have been a rhetorical question, but, even with the battle won by Disney opponents, it was not a moot one.

The second line of attack historians adopted to oppose Disney's America similarly had weaknesses and similarly evaded issues that persist in spite of the outcome. It rested on the probability that the park would, from a historian's perspective, present an inadequate, misleading, and unacceptable version of American history. The company itself made that a plausible fear, given the record of "Disney realism" stretching from the postñWorld War II film True Life Adventures to Davy Crockett and the saccharine, mostly white-bread representations of the past in Disneyland. In recent years, however, the Walt Disney Company has attempted to address concerns about accuracy and comprehensiveness through such efforts as the well-known and commendable involvement of historian Eric Foner in revising the Orlando Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents exhibit. Acting as corporate spokesperson, Rummell emphasized the participation of "academicians, historians, museum curators, teachers, students, and other authorities" in the planning process for Disney's America. He further identified three major, serious themes for the parkó "America's persistent resistance to injustice, its ability to meet challenges and conquer the future, and the conviction that ordinary men and women can accomplish extraordinary things."

While that list may sound a bit celebratory to many American historians, it left room to maneuver and did not necessarily differ in tone from pronouncements made by professional historians. For example, The U.S. History Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, an effort to reach "national consensus on what students in grades 4, 8, and 1. should know . . . in U.S. history," had as one of its four major themes "the development of American political democracy from colonial times to the present." (One might also have cited the development of bureaucracy and the persistence of inequality.) If groups including professional historians, prescribing for elementary and secondary schools, see no distinction between accuracy and a celebratory tone, Disney, with a corporate heritage of spreading cheer, could hardly be expected to draw a different conclusion.

In the end, cancellation of the project cancelled the public debate, or postponed it, time and place to be arranged. Left unresolved and largely undiscussed, nonetheless, was the problem of who might have gone to the park and what messages they would have taken from it. A telling sign of the latter was the manner in which most of the arguments, pro and con, accepted a distinction between history and pleasure. Although perhaps a dismal comment on our profession, the distinction itself is not natural or inevitable. Historians, however, reinforced it by evoking images of themselves as preservers of the sacred soil against its potential desecration by commerce, urban sprawl, and carnival rides. Laypersons agreed. A letter to the Washington Post from a Fairfax, Virginia, resident proclaimed that "real history isn't entertaining. It's heart-wrenching, it's sometimes difficult to understand, and at times it's uplifting and exhilarating. But it's never entertaining." A mother of five children, interviewed in Walt Disney's hometown of Marceline, Missouri, declared, "The children don't like history all that well because it's facts and figures. If you do it in a fun way, you'd be surprised what they'[d] remember." That grim view of history as practiced by historians enabled Disney officials like Mark L. Pacala to make a powerful claim. "The idea is to walk out of Disney's America with a smile on your face," he declared. "We don't want people to come out with a dour face. It's going to be fun with a capital F."

Turning Civil War battlefields into something to smile about may sound like a formidable challenge, even for a corporation that made mice loveable, especially since the rhetoric indicates a consensus among the different positions: on one side, all appear to assume, there is entertainment, on the other there is history and serious scholarship. Public historians, filmmakers, museum curators, and others have done fine work in recent years to erase that distinction, or at least to make it less severe, but it stands at the core of the Disney debate as a sort of "two cultures" argument for the 1990s. Fun versus historyóit's an unequal contest. Purists will step to one side of the line; the vast majority will step to the other, perhaps some renegade historians among them.

At this point in the discussion, the study of popular cultureó which now engages a fair number of historians, including meó reenters the picture, and a question about the profession arises. It is not the old, frayed one: "Can we make `real' history accessible to a mass audience?" It is, instead, a more abstract question: "What do audiences take from public representations of history?" A significant fraction of historians and others who analyze popular culture follow the loosely defined Birmingham School in seeing popular texts as "open" to multiple, even oppositional readings. Audiences, so the argument goes, create meaning rather than passively absorbing it from the cultural products they consume, as theorists of "mass culture" would once have had us believe. One does not have to venture to the far edges of theoretical trendiness, in fact, to find such a position. It appears among such well-respected, well-established scholars as Lawrence W. Levine, who two years ago on the pages of the American Historical Review described popular culture "not as the imposition of texts on passive people who constitute a tabula rasa but as a process of interaction between complex texts that harbor more than monolithic meanings and audiences who embody more than monolithic assemblies of compliant people."

Having such statements on record, it begins to sound like an interpretive double standard when popular culture appears in our own backyard and we assume there is a "right" version of history that will be obscured or betrayed by the Walt Disney Company catering to folks who just want to have fun. It is easier for historians to see popular singers, television sitcoms, and minstrel shows as open to ambiguity, contestation, and the prospect of oppositional politics than to imagine such things in Disney's America, which touches us where we live.

Lest it sound as if I am trying to convict some scholars (including myself) of hypocrisy, I am framing the issue this way in order to highlight two things. The first is the difficulty we have in applying the same sort of analysis to ourselves, in our practice of history, that we bring to bear on remote, preferably dead, subjects. The second is that there may well be no hypocrisy at all, but rather realóif largely unexaminedó differences in how different forms of popular culture work, including differences between a theme park like Disney's America and the popular texts that increasingly engage historians. In odd ways, the most recent battle of Manassas might help us see more clearly what we are doing. That, however, would require exploring questions that for the most part were not asked in the furor over Disney's America, including some that have nothing to do with the particular site or subject. Would, for example, the form of the project—wherever it might have been located—have shaped its audiences' view of American history in especially powerful and potentially disturbing ways?

An amusement park comes close to being that 1960s dream, a total environment, in which stories are told and impressions made in specific ways, primarily visually, sometimes through audience participation, often in nonlinear fashion, and frequently by reducing grand events to the particular experiences of individualsóin other words, far different from most historical monographs.

To say that is to focus less on what would be conveyed at Disney's America than on how information would be presented and on whether or not the form would open (as company officials claim) or close the imagination to other ways of knowing history. Behind that prospect is the possibility that popular texts differ in their openness to multiple interpretation and contestation: it may, for example, be easier to draw diverse meanings, or no meaning at all, from a rap record than from a history theme park, in large measure because audiences for the former have other frames of reference while the latter create their own large-scale realms of meaning and claim to be the truth, dressed in fancy clothing. (Of course, audiences at Disney's America might have those other frames of reference if we taught and represented history better, but that's another story.)

I am less committed to that argument, which remains to be tested, than struck by a disparity. It is between, on the one hand, the intellectual vigor and theoretical flash-and-fire historians now bring to the study of popular culture, and the freedom of interpretation we grant to other audiences, and, on the other hand, the limited, predictable arguments and passive audiences we conjure when popular culture invades our hallowed ground.

—Ronald G. Walters is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.