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SommeWorld and the Disney-ification of history

In The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, the characters encounter SommeWorld which “invites its visitors to taste the marrow-chilling fear of being an infantryman in the Great World.” The as yet uncompleted SommeWorld encourages visitors to change into “uncomfortable British army uniforms before manning the trenches outside” where they encounter artillery barrages, mortars and parachute flares.

While this is a wholly fictional theme park, it is not so far from some of the approaches being taken by modern museums, including our very fine Australian War Memorial here in Canberra. The move to a greater level of interactivity, to the idea of “experiential” history goes beyond just making use of technology to attract new visitors. Someone told me yesterday, possibly completely apocryphally, that a Director of the Australian War Memorial had wanted to find a way to include scent in the exhibitions. Given that, as Rosenweig and Thelan found in 1998, museums tend to be viewed by the public as the most reliable source of knowledge about the past, one wonders how this move to the experiential will impact on people’s perception of and interpretation of the past – and also their faith in the museum. Static objects which provide seemingly (but obviously not really) unmediated access to the past make the public value the presentations in museums. While audio visual experiential history might make museums more entertaining, this does not mean equate with making them more trusted as a source of history.

Another interesting sideline in the Australian War Memorial is that aspect of entertainment sited in the past has bled into a commodified form of entertainment value from the space itself. OK, that isn’t very clear, but my own ideas abotu this are not quite clear and something I think is worth working through. Some time ago I attended a ball in the ANZAC Hall at the War Memorial which had a “spy/secret agent” theme. We dined under the remains of the midget submarine on tables decorated with plastic guns and licorice bullets and danced under the wingspan of G-for-George. It is a fabulous venue, but it also leaves you with a slightly odd feeling. I don’t have any of the outrage that somehow we are profaning something sacred or any such investment in the objects of the past, but it is interesting how it turns what has been seen as a space of commemoration and memory into a site of celebration, commercialism and even business – anyone can hire this space as a venue for cocktail functions or balls. Not sure that there have been any weddings there, but I guess it is possible…. Now this is, from a pragmatic viewpoint, a sensible way for the War Memorial to make additional money from what would otherwise be empty spaces at night which it cna use to continue to restore and support its collection. from a theoretical viewpoint, it represents a whole lot of other things. It is interesting, for example, to contemplate what Pierre Nora might think about it, about this use of les lieux of memory.

Perhaps in the future we see the past reflected to us in the form of SommeWorld, or the historical pageant theme parks of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu, which Stein gets thrown out of for being too authentic in his attempt to recapture his viking past, and Mercy orchestrates as she tries to capture something not able to be satisfied in the world she lives in.

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4 responses to “SommeWorld and the Disney-ification of history

  1. It’s a good question. In Geert Mak’s vast historical travelogue, In Europe (written in 1999), he spends time in the museums on the old Western Front, and is disturbed by precisely this aspect of their commemoration of that past, the “macabre Disneyland” of carefully preserved craters and trenches. he also asks a question which now seems pertinent if – given the increasing (and increasingly removed from any real experience) use of the experience of the two world wars to ground foundational and national narratives – misguided:

    “When will the emotion of the Great War fade? When will it finally become history? . . . Allow me to hazard a guess: within the next ten years. Somewhere between the third and fourth generation, somewhere between the grandchildren – who can scarcely remember anyone who was involved – and the great-grandchildren the feeling will change. . . The spectacle, not the memory, gradually becomes the crux of the matter. . . . Slowly the feeling shifts from one of solidarity to one of curiosity”.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      The interesting thing there is the extent to which World War I has become further ingrained in the Australian imagination – and its the way that, for example, the dawn service on ANZAC Day in Gallipolli has become such a way stop on the Grand European Tour of Experience young Australians now take. It will be interesting to see whether it also transforms in this way. I like the description of the change from solidarity to curiosity.

  2. We’ve talked about this before, and I know you’re much more accepting of the co-option of military history as a foundational narrative than I am, but for what it’s worth I think the last decade has seen what should have been a natural process of forgetting interrupted by a desire to use WW ! (and to a lesser extend WW II) past to create a sense of belonging, and a national myth. The problem isn’t that they shouldn’t be part of a national myth, just that the processes which would have seen them pass out of living memory, and from solidarity to curiosity (as Mak puts it) also means they have been severed from any sense of their reality, or even, most of the time, historical fact. What we are left with is sentimental (and often pernicious) fantasies about mateship and the national character, largely resistant to sensible discussion or questioning. I’d have to say I think it’s far from coincidental that the whole Anzac hero crap was pushed so hard by the Murdoch press from 2001 on, given News Ltd’s shameless barracking for war in Iraq, and support for Howard.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      I agree completely – and it is interesting to see the way that those sentimental and nostalgic myths then get incorporated into the constructs of historical representations. The ABC did a history of Australians at war a couple of years ago and it was amazing to see how the first four episodes or so were all built around the same essential story – Australians as outnumbered and tough blah blah. The same trope, which they didn’t even seem to notice they were so whole-heartedly embracing. And I think you are absolutely right in making the link between the reviving of ANZAC and the Howard history wars and (both) Iraq Wars.

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