Viewpoints

On Disney's America: Consumer Culture and Perceptions of the Past

Alon Confino, 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.).

Disney's basic idea in its original plan to build a theme park featuring American history was to let people experience the history of the United States personally. While the idea that one may experience historical events may seem at first glance unproblematic, it is in fact significant, for it is profoundly ahistorical and, it seems, widespread in our society. It is with the notion of "experience" that I would like to begin, by way of exploring the historical perception imbedded in the Disney project and its relation to consumer culture.

The plan of the park, whose center was to be a village from the Civil War period, included nine entertainment-historical areas. Among these areas were "Native America, 1600–1800," including a Native American village with a white-water rafting ride; a "Civil War Fort, 1850–1870," with a section about slavery; "We the People," re-creating Ellis Island and the story of the immigrants; and "Victory Field, 1930–1945," about America in the Second World War. Bob Weis, senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering and director of creative development of the park, explained the historical conception behind it: "Beyond the rides and attractions for which Disney is famous, the park will be a venue for people of all ages ... to learn more about [the nation's] past by living it." Obviously, Weis did not pretend that Disney had invented a time machine (not yet, at least). Instead, he meant that in order to grasp the significance of an event—and how it really happened—one needs to experience it. This explains his observation that "we want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave or what it was like to escape through the underground railroad."

Behind this idea is the notion that a stage re-creation of an event and personal experience in enacting it can teach about the past. But this is wishful thinking. Attempting to reenact the experiences of a Civil War soldier cannot explain the multitude of historical motivations and circumstances that acted simultaneously. And it cannot explain relations of cause and effect and abstract historical factors such as economic trends—because these are not immediately translatable into personal experience. Perhaps more important, we cannot learn about the past simply by dressing up like a Civil War soldier or escaping through the Underground Railroad, because, strictly speaking, we cannot feel what it was like to be a slave: we can never fully re-create this historical experience with its particular smells, lights, natural environment, and human sentiments.

History (the discipline) values chronology and the intrinsic differences between periods, and is like the river in Heraclitus's adage, "You cannot step twice into the same river." The "historical experience" promised at the theme park, instead, flattens the sense of difference between the past and the present. The Disney reconstruction of the past can tell us, therefore, how people in the 1990s think about the past, but not about how people in the past thought about themselves. As a project whose aim is to teach history, the park fosters anachronism.

The idea that experiencing the past brings us closer to understanding it is related to the influence of cinematic and televised images, which create the notion that we know the past because we see it. In our society, it appears, images convey a greater truth than words; seeing is believing. The Roman Empire? I know it from I Claudius. American slavery? I know it from Disney's America. The Disney park, moreover, is based on a more profound idea—that we can understand the past without intermediaries, that we can simply jump into the past. The basic notion behind this perception is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) term in the creed of modernity: "experience." People who have experience are considered in our society more knowledgeable, sophisticated, and mature; the development of one's personality is commensurate with new experiences. And experience is a key term in the way we formulate ideas about the world; people who travel are considered more qualified and prepared to deal with the world. Based on the prominent place of experience in our culture as a mode of understanding the world, Disney's park offers to sell historical experience as a commodity.

Has this perception of the past been peculiar to Disney? It appears to be the sign of the times. Neither the packaging of the past for mass consumption nor the emphasis on experiencing the past is unique to Disney. Sites that are deemed more historical than Disney's America, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, are in fact quite similar to it. For Disney, profit is paramount. But the past in Colonial Williamsburg is nonetheless a commodity for mass consumption, and some elements of its representation remind us of Disney's America. For example, visitors are invited to converse with the people of the past.

Has this perception of the past been unique to the United States? The answer must be no. In Germany, Frank Georgi, a former tourist guide, is planning a theme park north of Berlin: a re-creation of his old homeland, East Germany. Georgi explains his motives in Disneyesque language: "Most people in West Germany and other countries never knew what life was like for us, and this will be a chance for them to see. Also, people who lived here don't want to lose all contact with the last 40 years of their lives. They feel a kind of nostalgia for the old days, and it's increasing as time passes." The park will reconstruct life in East Germany to the smallest detail: the only cars and products allowed will be from the former East Germany; human behavior will fit the old days as waiters will be impolite. And a touch of German Ordnung will also be present: visitors will sign forms promising to abide by the rules of the park and will specify the duration of their visit. Once inside "East Germany" visitors will not be permitted to take an early leave except for emergencies. This park reflects a national culture within the universal culture of historical theme parks.

In Israel, a popular conception is that one can understand the past by literally getting into the shoes of people from the past. For the Jewish population of Israel, the memory of 1948, the foundation of the state, is very important. In the last 15 years a host of museums have emerged in kibbutzim and towns displaying the local history of the War of Independence. This popular movement reflects the concern of the older generation that young Israelis will forget the past because consumer society in Israel today is very different from the small and pioneering Yishuv. To bridge this gap, many museums have children re-create the 1948 period by putting on the clothing, shoes, and national tembel hat of the pioneers. There is nothing wrong in enacting the past; it can even be fun. But it is one thing to have fun, and quite another to think that "getting into the shoes of the past" in museums and theme parks necessarily brings one any closer to understanding the past. What Disney shares with the German and Israeli examples is the idea that one can "experience" the past and perceive a reality behind material objects that enables one to "understand" what the past was really like.

The thread that runs through these cases is the influence of consumer culture. Disney's goal was to transform history into a consumer item within an entertainment park. As such, Disney can be understood as the latest manifestation in a tradition of consumer exhibitions of the past and of national identity that began after the French Revolution and achieved perfection with the British Great Exhibitions, the French Expositions Universelles, the American World's Fairs, and the post-1945 international exhibitions, such as the one that took place in Seville in 1992. The European and North American nations displayed national history and character in the pre-1939 exhibitions. For Great Britain, to name one example, "the exhibitions from 1900 onward were harbingers of ... invented Englishness," namely the idea that the preindustrial past of "Olde Englande" embodied the true character of the nation. The exhibitions were a splendid stage on which to display colonial adventures and, by extension, the ideas of progress and of the superiority of the West over other civilizations.

"World exhibitions," wrote Walter Benjamin, "were places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity." In this space of entertainment—from the 19th century to Disney's America—the past and the nation were, like anything else, commodities. This, I believe, is the context within which we should explore Disney's America—as yet another manifestation of the nexus between representations of the past and consumer culture. In recent years, some writers have attempted to demolish the idea that consumer society and consumerism are dull and superficial. Instead, they have emphasized the symbolic elements of consumer culture and material objects, and the role of cultural commodities as belongings that help people construct identities. We should ask: What is the influence of Disney's past on people's perception of the past? Why is this past received or rejected, and by whom? What is the role of Disney in the creation of a shared, and partly invented, American past? Does consumer culture cultivate ahistorical notions of the past?

The significance of theme parks and international exhibitions is closely connected to the topic of tourism, for without tourists there can be no theme parks or international exhibitions. Dean MacCannell argued in his excellent book, The Tourist, that "our first apprehension of modern civilization ... emerges in the mind of the tourist." One need not accept this sweeping evaluation in order to agree that tourism has developed into a major vehicle through which people formulate ideas about the world. Interesting questions can thus be raised. What is the historical consciousness developed by tourists? Does tourism nourish a sentiment of the present as an extension of the past or as inherently different from it? Does it encourage ahistorical notions such as anachronism and the flattening of difference between past and present? And if tourism does emphasize the essential alienation between past and present, in what ways, then, is the past relevant in our society?

Posing such questions seems to me more fruitful than debating whether to support or oppose Disney's America. Modern society is full of ahistorical, commercial representations of the past—films, to name the most important form. Should we ban the production of films because they are not subjected to the system of control and evidence used by historians? Should we censor Birth of a Nation or Jud Süss because of their racist messages? The answer is, of course, no. At the same time, however, historians should not rush to accept the Mickey Mouse Chair of History: Disney's business is making money. That this fundamental truth is well known does not make it less relevant; historians study and teach history for other reasons. Every society includes several discourses about the past that are connected, but not identical. Disney's is one such discourse, determined by consumer culture, and historians should not attempt to make it something other than what it is. What historians should say, perhaps, is that the best place to study the past is still a history class, not because it necessarily offers the truth, but because historians teach the tools to think critically about the past—including Disney's past.

—Alon Confino is assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia.