Walt Disney and Public History

A career in public history can lead one down some unexpected paths.  Unlike a traditional academic career, focused so intently on classrooms and publications, public history is, indeed, everywhere, and can assume almost any creative or intellectual form. It has taken me from Colonial Williamsburg to C-SPAN to the Hudson Valley and on to Harvard, the Kennedy Institute, and Newport.  It has also put me on a plane to Orlando, on my way to, of all places, Walt Disney World, and all it has to offer for the practicing public historian, which, as it turns out, is quite a bit.

This particular adventure started when the editor of my forthcoming textbook on the practice of public history — Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) — strongly suggested, in a way that only editors seem to be able to carry off, that I include more in my book about the history of public history. I was pointedly planning to avoid the topic, except for some broad historical commentary on public historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, and escape any emphasis on theory — given the little interest and less patience I have with that particular topic. But a textbook worth the time and money of any student or practitioner, I was reminded, however focused on the practical dimensions of the field,  should tell the whole story of that field, which includes such essential backstories.  So added to my research and writing schedule were two new chapters, starting with the history of public history.  And who would I run into as I began it but the man behind the mouse: Walt Disney.

It’s not that he, or his specter, at least, wasn’t inevitably lurking in the background of that history.  Disneyfication” has long been a pejorative in the field, meaning essentially the commodification, simplification, and even misdirection of cultural heritage for profit.  It had a particularly negative resonance among veteran staff at Colonial Williamsburg, who sneered at what appeared to be the Walt Disney Company’s overt rejection of any responsibility for authenticity and accuracy in pursuit of whatever sentimental or narrative entertainment value that might earn a buck for the multimedia behemoth.  The recent past has given us attempts by the Disney Company, under Michael Eisner’s guidance, to establish a Civil War theme park in Northern Virginia and a cringeworthy twist on the tale of Pocahontas in the eponymous animated feature.  Throw in movies and television adaptions such as the stories of Esther Forbes’ fictional, but beloved, Johnny Tremain and an all-too unhistorical take on the very real Davy Crockett (a broadcast that nevertheless generated a massive nationwide phenomenon that makes the current “Hamilton” fad look like the merest blip on America’s cultural radar screen), and Disney’s reputation for being the enemy of public history, of doing more harm than good, appears to be well-deserved. So what, you may well ask, am I doing on this plane? 

In short, I blame Neal Gabler, a terrific biographer now penning a life of Edward M. Kennedy, about which we have been exchanging thoughts and ideas.  Our discussions led me to his splendid book on Walt Disney and more than a few things I didn’t know about that complicated American visionary.  One was his deep appreciation of America’s past and its importance to our national identity — an issue that has been contested, and condemned, in more than one academic conference session.  More interestingly, however, was his connection to the thrust of my book: the seminal, and reciprocal, role he played in the the modern practice of public history.  When he first considered the potential of  imbedded, immersive experiences, and the business that made it possible, as well as the point of it all, Disney turned first to those sites that were then on the cutting edge, most notably Colonial Williamsburg.  Disney and his wife registered their first visit there in 1944.  As his activity and interest increased, especially when Disneyland was coming to the fore of his efforts in the 1950s, he returned to CW and added Old Sturbridge Village and other sites to his research itinerary, shaping and reshaping his view of the importance of people and place as key elements in telling a story that could transport anyone to another context, whether fictional or historical, leaving their modern views behind to embrace the possibilities inherent in fully engaged interactions with live interpretation and, of course, the built environment.  He refined that with more visits in the 1960s as he moved to expanding that view while he and his “Imagineers” developed Disney World. In 2017, it is likely that more people this year will gain their core understanding of American history and identity from a visit to a Disney theme park, a movie, or another media source than will ever read all of Bernard Bailyn’s books combined.

The favor, if you will, was returned as cultural heritage sites like CW adopted and profited from the practices that Disney developed, for better and worse. So the relationship has definitely become one in dire need of therapy, which is why I’m here — to learn, with the help of the Walt Disney Company, to renew the dialogue, if not stage an intervention.  As a group of my Harvard graduate students taught me with a clever project last year, Walt Disney World is a great public history site, whether we like or not, so here I am (Using Frozen‘s hereditary monarchy model for an extra credit question recently had nothing to do with it. Really.).  It’s sure to be a wild ride, so I hope you come along for it. 

Second historian to the right, and straight on ’til morning.

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