Some Second Thoughts on Disney's America

Linda Shopes, 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.).

The Disney Corporation's announcement last fall that it would not proceed with plans to locate a historical theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, was, for many of us, a satisfying conclusion to months of protest. Yet the decision not to build there does not preclude the construction of history theme parks elsewhere. Disney avers that it remains interested in developing its park at some yet-to-be-determined site in Virginia, and if that state continues to prove inhospitable, several others, including my own state of Pennsylvania, eager to attract the tax and tourist dollars the project would undoubtedly generate, have made overtures to the Disney Corporation. Moreover, other extravagant tourist ventures that capitalize upon historical and cultural themes are not likely to go away. Yet the—to my way of thinking—successful conclusion of this "third battle of Manassas" does provide a fortuitous occasion to reflect upon the numerous issues Disney's America has pushed to the fore for history and historians.

I first took serious note of Disney's plans for a history theme park last spring, when author David McCullough, representing Protect Historic America, spoke with eloquence and passion against the project to the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, where I am employed. Protect Historic America's position is by now well known: it opposed the siting of Disney's America in and around Haymarket on the grounds that it would destroy a deeply historic landscape in service of a manufactured history; it did not oppose Disney's foray into history making. McCullough's message was favorably received by many of my colleagues, who are committed to an ethic, and a politic, of historic preservation. Yet others of us, myself included, balked. While I concede that some properties have more obvious historic significance than others and that as a strategy Protect Historic America's position perhaps made sense, I am nonetheless troubled by invocations of "sacred ground" as an approach to preservation. Sacred to whom? According to what—and whose—criteria?

Conservative critics are correct in charging the preservation movement with elitism, unintended or not. Here in Pennsylvania the abandoned Homestead Steel works, arguably as significant a monument to the Industrial Revolution as the Manassas site is to the Civil War, was sold for scrap; the future of the Homestead site, which is in private hands, remains uncertain, and the surrounding community is currently struggling to give this piece of sacred ground proper recognition.

Related to this issue is the concern advanced by some northern Virginia residents and others, including Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that the pace and scale of development associated with the Disney project will overwhelm and "uglify" the surrounding countryside, as small towns and rural areas are transformed by tract housing, strip malls, fast-food joints, heavy traffic, and hoards of tourists. According to this line of thinking, the Disney project is a development issue, not a history issue. Here too critics charge elitism: locals are chastised as guilty of the "not in my backyard" response to development and their historian allies as supportive of the preservation of a lovely countryside for the enjoyment of a privileged few.

These charges are undercut in part by recognizing that quality of life concerns have historically been muted by the "more is better" ethic of capitalism and, like it or not, in the face of this overweening assumption, protest—like development—has generally occurred on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, given the intense localism and self-interest that characterize our culture, what more can we expect? In fact, it can be argued that if local officials in Virginia had taken a less shortsighted view of development in the first place, they wouldn't be scrambling so eagerly for the revenue and jobs Disney will presumably bring to the region.

Yet what has been does not really excuse what is, nor does it preclude what can be. In fact, McMalls and tourist attractions are not spread evenly around the countryside; wealthier populations are better able to isolate themselves from unwelcome intrusions. But they remain intrusions, wherever they are located. What ultimately is needed, in addition to a healthy skepticism about the value of growth, are strategies for controlling development in ways that help equalize both benefits and costs.

At bottom, however, my discomfort with the "sacred ground" and antidevelopment arguments against Disney is that they avoid precisely the question of deepest concern to historians: what rendering of the past might we expect in Disney's America or any other large-scale commercial enterprise? My own answer to the question is that I simply do not believe such ventures can do good history, can present a history that is thoughtful, evenhanded, and challenging, a history that expands our understanding of ourselves and our world. Which is not to say that within the overall project there may not be elements that are more or less historically accurate, that provoke thought, or that enliven some spectators to a greater appreciation for history. Nor is it to suggest that those historians whose democratic sensibilities and sense of professional obligation lead them to work with such ventures in the service of better history are simply naive, cynical, or mercenary. Like a lot of popular culture, history theme parks probably allow for multiple readings.

My argument is that a profit-seeking entertainment extravaganza is not likely to risk the disquiet good history stirs nor sustain the attention any serious engagement with history requires. These are partly issues of content, partly of form. Take, for example, the subject of slavery: Disney has backpedaled on its original intent to present the history of slavery on the grounds that it is too sensitive a topic. But isn't that precisely the point? What sort of history are we left with if subject matter deemed "too sensitive" is excised? Similarly, one can imagine a projected Civil War encampment as accurate in the details but stripped of any connection to the political and social issues driving the war. Or a proposed "small-town America" section celebrating middle American virtues with no reference to the parochialism that also has characterized many American communities, or to ways the decisions of banks, railroads, and government historically have threatened, if not destroyed, residents' independence. Anyone who has ever taught undergraduates, conducted community-based oral histories, or worked at a historic site knows how deeply embedded Whiggish notions of progress are in popular historical consciousness and how historical experiences that challenge these notions are denied, avoided, or coopted. Historians operating in classrooms and in nonprofit public venues have a difficult enough time challenging such views. Can we really expect a for-profit enterprise to effectively address them?

Then there is the gestalt of visiting a theme park: the excitement and tensions of a family vacation, the array of enticements, and the compulsion to see them all would seem to result in sensory overload and sheer exhaustion, precluding anything more than the shallowest engagement with historical materials. While no Luddite, I wonder if the much-vaunted Disney wizardry does as much harm as good: cannot simulations lead participants to a facile, if not arrogant, view that because they've experienced a recreated version of an event, they know it? Do they not create a false sense of intimacy with a past that can only be known approximately, and in ways deeply limited by the knower's point of reference?

At bottom, issues of preservation, development, and interpretation are not entirely separate. A belief in progress, a predilection to a forward-looking, if shortsighted, self-interest, a disinclination to see one's own experience as part of a bigger picture—and a critique of these tendencies—resonate in various ways through debates over Disney. In the end, perhaps the issue for historians is not so much which side to take but involvement in the debate itself. History—and its civic enactment as historic preservation—is contested terrain these days, and it seems to me a dereliction of responsibility for historians to eschew the fray. So the current discussions signal to me a healthy reengagement of historians with public life, a welcome blurring of the boundaries between citizen and scholar, authority and audience, that has ramifications well beyond Disney's America.

—Linda Shopes is associate historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Her opinions do not necessarily represent those of the commission.