During World War II, Walt Disney was busy making films in support of the war effort; ranging from topical shorts to sophisticated, targeted and effective “propaganda” pieces the Disney studio produced more than 400,000 feet of film, for every branch of the armed services and other divisions of the government. Reaching millions of civilians, servicemen (and not incidentally the Axis powers) the films used the full powers of storytelling and technology to alternately enlighten, enrage and horrify the audience. He employed an impressive arsenal of parody, stylized animation, comedy, design, music and effects along with his singular ability to ramp up production with breathtaking speed and efficiency. Ranging from the surreal nightmare of “der Fuehrer’s Face” to “Victory Through Air Power”, a genuflect to the temple of strategic bombing, these films are unforgettable especially if you are mindful of the context in which they were created.
Context. Context is everything. Sometimes context is a physical space.
As part of his research, Walt journeyed to Colonial Williamsburg to learn more about their innovative educational films; he studied and learned. While there, he saw for the first time, an attraction, a living museum that had been realized as a dimensional space through which he could travel not only in space but time itself. He realized that it was possible to create a place of authenticity derived from history, science or for that matter, imagination that could let guests experience content and learn in a whole new way. Today we call this experiential learning.
How striking it is, that innovation and imagination, having the audacity and courage to create such a space in the first place and then to use film, theatre and other media to educate and preserve, first came from a living history museum. How ironic that for decades, many museums (and yes there are notable exceptions - Phil Hettema's brilliant work at the National WWII Museum for example) have resisted innovations of technology, immersive sciences, thematic treatments, theatre, film, spectacle and experience, in short all of the tenets that have made the modern theme park so successful because they deemed them too saccharine, gauche or (dare I say it) too much fun! (There. I said it).
It’s time for this to change because the lessons of science and industry, art and most especially history, are too important to be lost on new generations who learn in entirely new ways and who value experience above all else. If these gemstones, living history museums, the keepers of the American story don’t change, they too will be, well….history.
This has nothing to do with changing the facts of history in the interest of storytelling; it has everything to do with framing them in a construct that is engaging, interactive and most of all memorable, for after all, what is learning but a retained memory?
Some years, back when I was working on a musical drama that told the story of America’s POW’s during the Vietnam conflict, I spent a lot time with some very smart, very tough and passionate Americans. A Naval Aviator, who had been in prison for 7 years, gave me this advice, as we tried to figure out how to tell this (alternately) harrowing, heartwarming and inspiring tale.
He said: “Don’t spend so much time being authentic that you forget to tell the story”. He didn’t say: “Forget the facts, just make it great!” or “Heck, people won’t know what really happened anyway!”
We all knew that what “really happened” is what made the story so compelling in the first place. What he meant was this:
“Find the universal truth in this thing, the thing that will matter and resonate with everyone who experiences it: Discovering courage you didn’t know you had, the miraculous ability of the human spirit to triumph in the face of incredible odds; how strength begets strength begets freedom; tell the story of the unbelievable saga of the wives who took on the Pentagon, the North Vietnamese, the Paris Peace Talks and anyone else who got in the way of bringing their husbands home. Don’t forget to tell the story.”
If ever there was a man who had a vested interest in making sure that his experience was not trivialized by theatre, razzle-dazzle and technology, it was him.
I lived in Williamsburg for over 20 years and still return whenever I can. Back in the day I would drop the kids at an evening activity, grab some coffee and walk a deserted Duke of Gloucester Street in the middle of winter. I feel lucky because I can sense the past, I can put myself in a time long ago and experience the people and places in a way that gives me goose bumps. I spent some time on Cold Harbor Battlefield not long ago and had that same experience; a visceral response to wrenching but important events of long ago. Not everyone is wired that way; we all have different gifts and for people who struggle with understanding the relevance of the past and why it matters, it should be our mission to bring the spirits, people, ideas and events, conflicts and triumphs to life, using every tool and every ounce of imagination at our disposal.
The future of our past depends on it.