Thursday, 28 August 2014

Disneyland SHOULD BE a Museum

“Disneyland is not a museum” is the tried and tired mantra employed by Imagineers and Disney fans alike whenever news of a change to the park is received with anything less than glowing enthusiasm. It is meant to invoke the spirit of Walt Disney, who said that Disneyland would never be completed, against accusations that Walt wouldn’t have done something in a certain way. Whether or not that is true, the phrase “Disneyland is not a museum” is a thought terminating cliché that is less troublesome for what it says about Disneyland than what it says about our attitudes towards museums and our ambivalence towards the preservation of history. In my life beyond blogging, I work as a professional educator in the museums and heritage field whose undergraduate degree focused on exhibit design, and I would like to share with you the argument that Disneyland should be a museum.

I don’t personally know anyone who hates changes at Disneyland for the sake of hating changes. Rather, what I see are people who are justifiably critical given that Imagineering’s track record at actually improving guest experience with new additions is uneven.

Most people can list alterations and renovations that they have liked and that they have disliked, sometimes within the same attraction. For example, when all is said and done, the addition of Disney characters to It’s a Small World was innocuous, but the addition of the America section was just awful. It was not awful in principle, merely because it is a new section, but it was so poorly executed. When I took Ashley to Disneyland for the first time, I decided to run a quick experiment by not telling her that the America section was a relatively recent addition. Afterwards, she volunteered the opinion that this section looked like it was from an entirely different ride.

 Saying that “Disneyland is not a museum” is problematic on the surface because it is an attempt to shame critical engagement with a work of art. By “critical” I do not necessarily mean “negative” (though it can certainly be). Instead, I am using it in the technical sense of a formal analysis of a work of art. Critical thinking means to engage with a work of art, to reflect on it, to absorb it into one’s psyche, to feel it and reason through it, and to consider how it does or does not achieve its goals. It would be to ask why, in my opinion, the addition of Constance to the Haunted Mansion works while the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean does not, and to be able to formulate a coherent argument to defend that point of view.

Yes, I actually like Constance.
This is important because being able to think critically is valuable. Study after study into museum and arts education has revealed that fostering the ability to think critically about art improves our ability to think critically and creatively about other subjects. It is known to enhance math scores and reading comprehension, to stimulate and motivate further learning, to develop creative problem solving skills, boost confidence and self-esteem, promote tolerance of ambiguity and understanding of other people and cultures, encourages sensitivity to others and our environment, train minds to reason logically and think abstractly, deepen our appreciation of history and beauty, increase emotional and psychological health, and improve all-around quality of life and personal satisfaction. Thinking critically about art makes us better people.

Knee-jerk reactions, either positive or negative, rob us of that opportunity to grow emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually. This happens very clearly in blindly negative reactions that seem to encourage an aggressive lack of perspective. When one defaults to cynicism that only ever sees what is wrong and what sucks, one is not developing meaningful critical thinking skills or cultivating a generousity of spirit towards other people and cultures with different points of view. Ultimately it victimizes ourselves by miring us in anger, frustration, and emotional and intellectual stuntedness. But herein lies the rub: blindly positive reactions also do this. The effect is more subtle and insidious, but while blind positivity may give the appearance of increased happiness, it still cultivates the same shallow sentimentalism, anti-intellectualism, and discomfort with diverse opinions as crude cynicism. Both attempt to shut down critical thinking, and in so doing, deny us the benefits that come from developing our critical thinking skills.

“Disneyland is not a museum” is a hazardous statement because it is meant to do exactly that. It implicitly asserts that any change is automatically good, coming pre-approved from Walt Disney himself, and that you shouldn’t think critically about it. Of course they have a vested interest in this: above all else, Disney sells experiences and they don’t want bad buzz. People thinking critically about what Disney makes has the potential to interfere with the experience just as easily as it can deepen the experience, and interfering with the experience can interfere with profit.

So they attempt to shame critical thinking itself by invoking everything they presume a museum to represent: the boring box that old, dead things go into… dull old paintings, dull old antiques, dull old bones, and dull old people who like that sort of thing. “Disneyland is not a museum,” meaning that it’s the kind of place where you’re supposed to have fun, and thinking critically about things isn’t fun! (Isn’t it interesting that discouraging critical thinking goes hand-in-hand with buying lots of stuff?)

This view of museums – which according to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) definition includes museums, art galleries, historic sites and monuments, zoos and aquaria, and science centres – is itself an outdated artefact that hasn’t been relevant in decades. Besides just being totally unaware of what museums offer and how they operate, it fundamentally misunderstands what a museum even does. Museums are not places where we merely go to see things that are old. Museums are where we go to see things that are great. And in our contemplation of those things, we come to reason and appreciate why they’re great, and we become better people for it.

It may be that these things are great because they are especially beautiful, like a painting or a sculpture. They may be great because they are original, the very first of their kind, like a piece of technology. They may be great because of what they represent about the common human story, like the personal belongings of an Asian or European immigrant to North America. They may be great because of what they tell us about the Earth and its history, like a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. They may be great because they’re connected to an historic personality or a critical event in a nation’s history or are really cool or just because it’s really expensive. The point is, we preserve these things and contemplate them because they are important in shaping who we are as people, a country, a culture, and a species.

A mammoth skeleton of a Woolly Mammoth.
Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparé, Paris, France.
Jesus in agony on a Mediaeval crucifix. The Louvre, Paris, France.
Haida killer whale mask in the dark and gloom.
Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, Canada. 
Camera owned and used by unparalleled silent film comedian Buster Keaton.
Hollywood Heritage Museum, Hollywood, USA.
A contemplative meerkat. Calgary Zoo, Calgary, Canada.
Rodin's incredible Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.
National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan.
Inside a minimalist traditional Japanese home.
Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, Tokyo, Japan.
A curious onlooker. Berenty Reserve, Madagascar.
Not a bad place to call home. Bar-U Ranch National Historic Site, Canada.
This is why Disneyland should be a museum. Even before Disneyland earned the patina of age, Walt Disney’s original vision for it appreciated the importance of what museums do. “Disneyland is dedicated,” Walt said during the opening ceremonies, “to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” That could just as easily be the dedication to the Smithsonian. He did not stop there, however. Walt articulated the purposes of his new park even further:
“The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge. It will be a place for parents and children to share pleasant times in one another’s company; a place for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education. Here the older generation can recapture the nostalgia of days gone by, and the younger generation can savor the challenge of the future. Here will be the wonders of Nature and Man for all to see and understand. Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world. Disneyland will be sometimes a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic. It will be filled with accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.”
Indeed, Disneyland is a “museum of living facts.” For my undergraduate museum and heritage studies thesis, I studied themed design in museum spaces. For that research, I took a hard look at Disneyland and the extent to which it could be argued that the park itself constituted a museum space. I concluded that if Disneyland were a non-profit organization (which is also a criteria for formal designation as a museum), then arguably at least 40 of its 90 attractions throughout history would qualify as museum exhibits, before we even consider the historicity of Disneyland itself. This would include attractions like the Mark Twain Riverboat and Submarine Voyage, the Sailing Ship Columbia and the Main Street Cinema, the Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland and Adventures Thru Inner Space, the NASA exhibit during the 1998 refurbishment of Tomorrowland and the Penny Arcade, the Hall of Chemistry and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Indian Village and the House of the Future. You may have noticed from that list that the number of museum-type attractions at Disneyland has declined over time.

Not a museum?
Sure about that?
Then we confront the fact that not only do many Disneyland attractions still qualify as museum exhibits if they were in a non-profit context, but that Disneyland itself is an historic site. The recent evisceration of Club 33 and alteration to New Orleans Square has once more brought to light the fact that Disneyland’s historic status is one of its biggest assets. It is the Disneyland, the one that Walt Disney himself created, oversaw, and walked in.

As newer parks and more sophisticated attractions are built around the world, this historical cachet becomes ever more poignant. For some time, when I’ve been asked which Disney park is the best, I always give a qualified answer: yes, Tokyo Disneysea is more mature and technically superior, and Disneyland Paris is considerably more beautiful and better organized, but Disneyland USA is the Disneyland. It’s also not lost on me, as we prepare to embark on our honeymoon to Walt Disney World, that many of the attractions I’m looking most forward to are icons that used to be at Disneyland (like the Peoplemover, Carousel of Progress, Country Bears, Swiss Family Treehouse, a functional fort on Tom Sawyer’s Island, and the Main Street Electrical Parade). As Disneyland proceeds to efface its authentic history, it risks losing the advantage that distinguishes it from arguably better parks.

It also threatens to destroy an irreplaceable connection to history. Disney and Disneyland do not exist in an isolated corporate bubble. The park is a great work of art, filled with great works of art, which make all the connections I pointed out as the reasons why museums preserve works of art at all. They are beautiful, they are links to important people and talented artists, they have a place in history and tell us something about the development of a nation’s culture.

Disneyland was the first custom-built theme park. That is important, but also a purely ceremonial distinction without the existing “Class of ‘55” attractions and shoppes that were there from opening day. The Matterhorn Bobsleds is the first tubular steel roller coaster, which is also important, as is the first daily operating monorail in the Western hemisphere. Disney’s first major experiment with audio-animatronics – the Enchanted Tiki Room – is hugely important. Those are all great works of art, and important firsts in the history of American phenomenon of the theme park. Then there are significant development in that art form, namely the attractions created by Disney for the 1964-65 World’s Fair that are still found in one form or another in Disney parks.

And then there are the lasts… The final projects to which Walt was connected, namely New Orleans Square, Club 33, and Pirates of the Caribbean. These also deserved to be protected – not left completely immune to necessary improvements but at least spared from unnecessary violations – as the height of the Mousetro’s accomplishments before his untimely death. And not only his accomplishments, since he freely admitted that he didn’t really do anything, but the accomplishments of all the brilliant and talented artists and craftspeople he collected and empowered to make his dreams into reality. Sure they might have toiled anonymously as cogs in the company, but no artist deserves to have their work plastered over simply because it is old. One of the criteria for designation as a National Historic Landmark is "the best location to tell the story of an individual who played a significant role in the history of the United States." Gee, d'you think?

Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room National Historic Landmark.
Matterhorn Bobsleds National Historic Landmark.
Disneyland Park National Historic Landmark.
Disney is well aware of the cachet borne of being Walt’s own park. They are very happy to put up statues to him and upsell tours to his private apartment. But just as easily as they bring up his name, they seem content to tear down what he built. One can easily appreciate the challenges of keeping what is still ultimately a for-profit business profitable, and it is awfully tempting to look at something like Carnation Plaza as a dead space for renovation into a wonderful little extension of Fantasyland. It’s just too bad that there can’t be a greater consciousness of history’s importance, of why it’s really, really important to preserve those great things. Before all is said and done, I anticipate that the Walt Disney Family Museum will start recreating whole attractions in the warehouses of the Presidio. At least that is a museum and dedicated to giving people the breathing room to contemplate the greatness of Disney’s works. Disneyland gets to be “fun,” which is fine, but not the loftiest of life’s aspirations, nor the loftiest of Walt Disney’s own aspirations for his park.

Why not? If Disneyland is going to rip out Autopia anyways, they might as well.
The first time I visited Disneyland was in 2005, just after the start of its 50th anniversary. It was a wonderful time to visit, because it was a huge celebration of everything that Disneyland was and is and could be, which is why I wanted to visit to begin with. Disneyland is not merely a fun place or a cool place. It is also an important place, a great place. As the park coasts into its 60th anniversary, perhaps the most important thing it could do to recognize that inheritance is to respect and preserve it. Yes, Disneyland is not a museum. But in many ways, it should be.

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