Welcome to the Hyperreal Museum

October 26, 2007

The Hyperreal Museum, as I am told, is a term coined by Umberto Eco for Disneyland, the much loved and much maligned Happiest Place on Earth.  Though I own it, I’ve not yet read the book it comes from, Travels in Hyperreality, so I don’t know whether he meant it as a positive or a negative.  It could go either way: either you enjoy monuments of exaggerated reality, or you don’t.

Disneyland, as a place and a concept, is collection of places that don’t exist and never will.  Fantasyland is obviously just that; Tomorrowland will never come to pass; Frontierland is long gone; Main Street only recently gone; and Adventureland is exoticism manifested as jungle, tropic, and desert mashed together.  The add-on area of Toon Town is blatantly cartoony.  The closest we can get to realism is New Orleans Square, and even that’s a romanticised version of Old Swampy.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of the theory of theming, what elevates Disneyland above other theme parks is this tenuous connection to reality and its ability to exploit historical and fictional motifs.  The park, or rather the people who designed it, specifically went after aesthetics that people wanted but couldn’t have.  Walt said so.  You can read it on that plaque.  He walled off reality so he could create his own and control it, like some anal retentive freak.

So what happens when the nostalgia wears out, when the exhibits get old and worn down, and only the most fanatical bother to care anymore?  The locals become used to the status quo and the tourists don’t know any better. I will swear up and down that this almost happened early this decade.  The management stopped bothering when they decided that not good enough was good enough.  They found that if they didn’t try as hard and didn’t spend as much money, they could make more profit since people came anyway. Paint started peeling, light blubs burnt out, rides started creaking, and more and more of the standards were chipped away.

I mean, look at California Adventure.

But I really mean, look across the country and the bigger sister park: the Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld.  Kevin Yee over at MiceAge had a recent article about this very problem. The “museumification,” as he calls it, is in full effect there. They still have the Carousel of Progress, for god’s sake. Now there’s an artifact of antiquity, a 1964 New York World’s Fair original, a delightful testiment to Futurism.

So how long must a Hyperreal Museum remain static before it becomes a museum to itself? How many times can you ride Pirates of the Caribbean before the appeal comes from the recognition of the ride rather than the pirates? When does it turn from nostalgia into familiarity?

Thankfully, tides change.  And executives move on to mall jobs, where they’re better suited for cookie cutter production. Now, the emphasis seems to be more on innovation than preservation. But there are those who will lament the loss of any exhibit from the Hyperreal Musuem. As a Man of Science, I embrace the future. It’s too bad that the future of Tomorrowland has been hijacked by cartoonery, but that’s a different article.

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