The other day, I mentioned my MA thesis to a coworker while we rode the elevator to the lobby at the end of the day, and I realized I didn’t have a coherent, cogent way to talk about a piece of work that was not only substantial, but which I find endlessly interesting. I finished my thesis almost a year ago, but I still think about the themes and issues I explored therein nearly daily. My academic experiences are a major part of what informs my career direction, and I’ve been lucky to study subjects that I find fascinating on a personal and professional level.
So, this conversation prompted me to think about my thesis, and the fact that, since I filed it with my department, I haven’t really done anything with it. A few people have asked to read it, but otherwise? It’s been sitting on my laptop, being of use to no one. So I posted a 140-character blurb about it on Twitter, with the idea of revamping it and posting it in sections here on my blog. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which is what I’ve experienced in face-to-face conversations about it as well. I think many Americans have been interested in and thinking about some of these ideas since they were small, whether they were conscious of it or not.
What ideas? Well, this is where we get back to that lack of an (in this case, quite literal) elevator speech I mentioned above. I wrote, broadly, about Disney theme parks, and the way that historical narratives are presented within them. People the world over visit and love (and hate) Disney theme parks, and they’ve become important sites for cultural experience and knowledge creation. Theme parks are special because, since Disneyland’s opening in 1955 in particular, they are built spaces specifically intended to evoke a certain place, space, time or atmosphere, and their designers have total control over the story being told there. In recent years, theming has broken out of the constraints of the amusement park; we are all bombarded by themed restaurants, retail environments, and towns all the time. But I am interested in places where people spend their leisure time in a capitalist society, and so I am drawn back to theme parks again and again.
I have written before about how much I love visiting Disney theme parks. But, as an anthropologist and well-trained critical thinker, I have my own criticisms of the company, the fans, and the products. I have always loved history, but from some of my earliest visits to the parks, I called into question the narratives woven into the attractions. This research is an extension of that wondering.
In my thesis, I examined the way Disney constructs historical knowledge in its theme parks, with particular emphasis on the ways in which the Walt Disney Company exploits historical narratives in its Magic Kingdom parks around the world to reinforce its paternalistic role in its consumers’ lives. I analyzed the built space and attractions for their extensive, though not always explicit, support of historical narratives of progress and corporate innovation. The Magic Kingdom parks, as descendents of earlier forms of amusement parks, pleasure gardens and World’s Fairs, also bear similarities to modern museums. As visitors to museums, casinos, and other leisure institutions are more and more frequently immersed in themed environments, the role of theming in creating memories and historical knowledge – and the way visitors understand learning in themed environments – becomes increasingly important. By unbounding visitors from time and space in the Magic Kingdom, Disney is able to successfully market its brand of history, as long as its audience sees the experience as entertainment and not education.
Posting my thesis is not exactly on-mission for what has always been a rather light “lifestyle” blog. But these are the things that my mind wanders to when I’m hanging out on the subway, watching strangers interact in public, or when I’m visiting a museum, or when I’m waiting for a table at a restaurant. So, my hope is just that I can put my work out there, and that someone else will find it interesting. We’ll see!