Disneyfying the Past- History in the age of Spectacle
Visiting the ‘Pleasure Garden’ exhibit at the Museum of London , gave ample opportunity to ponder the issues around narrative, truth and the interpretation of events and objects raised by White in ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’ (1984)
In brief, the ‘Pleasure Gardens’ exhibit seeks to recreate for the visitor the experience of an evening visit to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Prior to entering the exhibit, an introductory text offers a brief socio-economic contextualisation of the history of the rise and fall of the pleasure gardens, from whence the visitor enters into the darkened room of the exhibit itself.
In the centre of the room a lighted pergola invites the visitor to sit and enjoy the multimedia experience which unfolds around them. Large video screens display fleeting figures emerging from the dark walks of the gardens. Video characters, dressed in costumes which are simultaneously displayed around the exhibit, act out scenarios which are presented as being representative of the kind of scandalous activities with which the pleasure gardens were associated. The visitor is a spectator to the events and can view the clothes worn by the actors in more detail via glass cased displays and clothed mannequins within the area of the exhibit.
Personally, I found the immersive experience of the exhibit underwhelming. The production values of the video components were poor and the surrounding display elements were sparse and not conducive to the suspension of disbelief necessary to engage with the multimedia narrative presented by the exhibit, and I found the multimedia element itself a distraction from the exhibited objects. As a visitor I felt myself to be at the mercy of one person’s fantasy of how fictional events may have unfolded, in a place which no longer exists, triggered by objects which may or may not have been present in the place and time the exhibit aimed to recreate.
It may be, as Croce observed, noted by White (1984)[i] that “Where there is no narrative there is no history,” but in this instance I would argue that an exhibit which is all narrative is not history at all For White (1984) this observation would put me outside the historians’ doxa of narrative functioning as a respectable way of ‘doing’ (Hexter, 1971) or ‘practicing’ (Elton, 1991) history, and place me at odds with such Anglo-American analytical philosopher as Walsh, Gardiner, Dray, Gallie, Morton White, Danto and Mink, whom, White argues[ii], have sought to establish narrative as an appropriate epistemiology for historical events. White (1984) might argue that my opinion would place me in the camp of the Annalistes who are said to reject narrative history on the basis that it is novelistic and dramatising, and concentrates on short term past political events rather than long term trends – thus rendering it an unscientific approach and therefore unsuitable for the science of historiography. My objection is simpler than that, however, and is rather more pragmatic. In this instance I just don’t think a multimedia narratisation of a fictional history works very well in fulfilling the presumed communication objective of the exhibit – which, one might reasonably assume, is to expand the visitors’ understanding of the socio-economic and cultural history of pleasure gardens through experiencing a pleasure garden for themselves. The objects on display had only tenuous links to the subject of the exhibit and the narrative was singularly unengaging; labouring to be simultaneously uninformative and unentertaining. To be fair the fault lay not wholly in the exhibit itself, but also in the viewer.
In attempting to recreate a pleasure garden, the exhibit aimed at a ‘truer’ understanding of the nature of a pleasure garden, an understanding reached by the viewer through direct experience. Putting aside the issue of narrative as a mediating force for the moment, this is a laudable aim given the slippery nature of what an historical ‘truth’, or indeed ay truth, might be deemed to be. If we accept that our present (the future past) and our actual pasts are constructed through highly unstable sign and meaning laden systems of objects and events (Baudrillard, 1975, 1998, 2006) then the notion of trying to produce a simulacra (Baudrillard, 1994) of any truth seems ambitious indeed and a fictionalised account of places and events seems as reasonable a starting place as any other. The difficulty arises in the fluid nature of the systems of sign and objects from which we construct our realities past and present. Signifiers and signifieds in our systems of signs are subject to diachronic and synchronic slippage, with no object or event holding an absolute meaning (Saussure, 1916). Even if the pleasure gardens exhibit had been the equivalent of journeying with Doctor Who to Vauxhall in the 18th Century and we had met and interacted with real people not actors, without breaching the Prime Directive (Star Trek), obviously, our own experience of the gardens would not have been comparable to that of the people born of the era. This is partly because of the slippery nature of systems of signs but also, from a purely behavioural perspective, as 21st century visitors we bring a different set of prior experiences and understandings to the party. Essentially, we cannot un-know what we know – even with access to a Time Lord and a great dressing up box – and our responses to the stimuli around us are based on expectations of what to expect in the future given what we have experienced in the past. This is known as derived relational responding and is at the heart of Relational Frame Theory (RFT) as set out by Hayes and Barnes-Holme (2001). Given Hayes and Barnes-Holme (2001) suggest that derived relational responding is inescapable and influences almost all aspects of human behaviour, the pursuit of the pleasure garden experience via a multimedia installation may have been misconceived from the beginning. One could argue that to experience the thrill of the ludic space the pleasure gardens represented for their contemporary visitors one might have to pursue a similar experience via alternate means. If the question is what did it feel like for people to visit the pleasure gardens of the 18th century, perhaps a visit to the ludic playground of ‘Winter Wonderland’ (Hyde Park, 2015) is the answer.
- Hayes, S.C.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B., eds., 2001. Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press
- Baudrillard, Jean, 1975. The Mirror of Production. 1st Edition Edition. Telos Press Ltd.
- Baudrillard, Jean, 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
- Baudrillard, Jean, 1998. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Baudrillard, Jean, 2006. The System of Objects (Radical Thinkers). Ninth Edition. Verso.
- Elton, Geoffrey R., 1991. The Practice of History. 2 Edition. Wiley-Blackwell
- Hexter, J. H., 1972. Doing History. Edition. Allen & Unwin.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de ( 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth
- White, Hayden. 1984 ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, History and Theory, Vol.23, No.1 (Feb.,1984),1-33 [ONLINE] available at https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/white.pdf [Accessed 25 January 2016]
[i] White, Hayden. (1984) ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, History and Theory, Vol.23, No.1 (Feb.,1984), 3 -4 [ONLINE] available at https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/white.pdf [Accessed 25 January 2016]
[ii] [ii] White, Hayden. (1984) ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, History and Theory, Vol.23, No.1 (Feb.,1984), 7 – 8 [ONLINE] available at https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/white.pdf [Accessed 25 January 2016]