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.