Monthly Archives: August 2014

Partial review of Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory

I did not realize how long it had been since my last post. I have been keeping busy, and I do have a thing or two to report, but I do not have time to write it up just now. Instead, I will include a partial preçis/review that I wrote for myself on

Wallace, Mike. Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

The book is a collection of essays divided into four sections. I read “Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States” (3-32), “Razor Ribbons, History Museums, and Civic Salvation” (33-54), “Boat People: Immigrant History at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island” (55-74), “Progress Talk: Museums of Science, Technology, and Industry” (75-86), “Industrial Museums and the History of Deindustrialization” (87-100), “The Virtual Past: Media and History Museums” (101-114), “Mickey Mouse History: Portraying the Past at Disney World” (133-58), “Disney’s America” (159-74), and “Preserving the Past: A History of Historic Preservation in the United States” (177-222).

My general impressions about Wallace were that he was very committed to public history and engaging with the public. He has a somewhat Marxist bent to his idea of historical progression, with lots of class struggle. However, he is not overly materialist; there is a great deal of social analysis, too.

One of his main concerns is that museums and displays not present the particular view of the dominant class. This is a topic that came up in “Visiting the Past,” “Boat People,” “Progress Talk,” and, well, maybe all of them. In the first chapter, he discusses Colonial Williamsburg, Greenfield Village, and other major attempts at historical preservation or recreation by industrialists. He argues that up through the late 19th century Americans preferred the narrative that they were not bound by history, with the coming troubles of the early 20th century, men like Ford and Rockefeller jr. decided that they wanted to promote a particular vision of the past. This past lacked the nascent conflict of the present. For instance, in Williamsburg, painstaking care was taken to replicate the 18th-century town, but it was peopled with mostly middle-class white people. Where were the slaves? The poor? The rich? It represented only the “best” parts of the time, and the parts that the industrialists believed themselves the heirs.

There is a similar story in discussion of immigration and technology. The museum at Ellis Island is good, he says, because it does look at anecdotes and statistics to show not the heroic side of immigration, but the pain, noting all the people who were turned away. It also tried to show the global element. However, he wishes that more effort was made to discuss immigration more widely, with the concerns in the home countries that motivated it, the mistreatment faced in the US, and the non-white immigrants who did not come through Ellis Island. This was done to a certain extent, but he wants more. He wants to make sure that it isn’t just the “America is a land of hard-working and accepted immigrants” myth. For technology and industrialization, he wants to show the pain associated with these things. He believes that focusing just on the technology gives too much credence to “progress” and ignores the real pains and struggles that came with industrialization, and the larger social changes it wrought. Same with deindustrialization.

Generally speaking, he wants more context. People should come away a sense of larger consequences and causes of historical change. It cannot be bundled up into a tidy narrative.

This is the major problem with Disney’s version of history. It wants to make people feel good, and as such it has to avoid contested points and controversy. That was an underlying problem with the Hall of Presidents and the proposed America theme park, among other things. He is not opposed to history being entertaining, but there are severe problems with relying on a company that specializes it entertaining and creating miniature, idealized versions of the past to accurately convey the complexities and darker parts of our own past. They want it to end on a positive note, marching toward a better future, and that is an agenda that cannot be matched with intellectual honesty.

The history of preservation has been a history of the elite. They leave a lot more artifacts behind and they are the ones who have spearheaded most historical preservationist moves. Businesses got on board in the 70s as a way of getting tax breaks and making money when the recession destroyed real estate prices, but with deregulation and the improving economy of the 80s, the alliance between preservationists and capitalists broke. Wallace’s line here seems to be that preservationism is ideologically opposed to market-driven capitalism, and needs to work on building a philosophy in opposition to mainstream capitalism rather than submitting to it or working with it.

The sections on technology or dated. I don’t know how many people think that VR helmets are the way of the future, but it seems less likely now than it did in the mid-90s. There are a lot of references to books and collections on CD-ROM. Wallace certainly cannot be blamed for underestimating the still developing internet of the mid-90s, but I would like to hear what he has to say about the integration of technology and exhibits now. He believed that online exhibits would not lead to lower turnouts in museums and that it was a good means of reaching out further into the larger community.

So, when putting together a museum you should: avoid particular, dominant narratives; remember context; think bigger than the particular focus of the museum; and embrace technology.

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