Chris: Diorama rides like The Time Masheen seen at the end of Idiocracy aren’t interactive in a strict sense, but since it’s a favorite moment and works for riders abstractly as an interface to the vast domain of knowledge that is history, I asked the awesome Cynthia Sharpe to provide some opinions. Cynthia works as the Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and so has a much more learned opinion than mine. We totally crazily co-wrote this in a 24-hour long frenzy of geekdom. Note that these opinions are her own, and not necessarily shared by Thinkwell Group (hey team!).
I usually try to post reviews of interfaces in the order they appear in the film. But Cynthia wants to make a hard core shout out to Sharice Davids and that would work best sooner rather than later, so we’re doing this NOW. omg. It’s almost like this post TRAVELED IN TIME.
Though the actual payoff is maybe a minute long, the whole The Time Masheen conceit and reveal in Idiocracy is one of my favorite “it’s turtles all the day down” moments of total ur-nerdery. A shitty ride, wrong history, awful exhibit design, Godwin-ing itself from the get-go. Pure poetry. As someone who works in both theme parks and museums, let’s have fun unpacking this, shall we?
The ride itself
The entry to The Time Masheen is most assuredly not Disney-esque in design or form. It’s garish, cheap, a visual cross of a 60s-era game show sign and the ride at the strange pop-up carnival that makes you think twice about its safety record. The ride vehicle—with our three, uh, heroes, jammed in it—is classic and old school (think Doom Buggies from Haunted Mansion but…sadder). But these are mere appetizers before the actual experience of the ride in all its majesty: dioramas with breathless voice-over featuring Charlie Chaplin as the leader of the Nazi Party in 1939, and the UN, which “un-nazied the world.” And T-rexes.
It’s played for laughs—how moronic do people need to be in order to believe this stuff?—but in form and content, it’s actually pretty believable. The Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World, both iconic Disney experiences, first debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair. When we look at the Carousel of Progress from 50 years in the future, it seems almost as dorky and unbelievable as The Time Masheen. These two real-world rides are not conceptual one-offs, either: when you get right down to it, the ride experience of Spaceship Earth at Epcot is remarkably similar: you proceed through multiple scenes, as “history” is dully (Dame Judi Dench can do only so much) dictated to you.
But whose history? Who’s telling this? This issue of voice and narrative control is not unique to theme parks. Museums have a far longer, bigger, and more powerful history in controlling historical narrative than two-bit carney rides or even lovely immersive experiences like the best of the theme parks.
Narrative or Discourse?
It’s only in the recent past that museums to any significant extent have embraced the idea of visitors actually bringing something to the table and participating. Think of the museums of your youth: You and your school group probably dutifully shuffled past rows of taxidermied animals, dioramas, or stultifying art with label copy that told you what to make of it.
Even the best science museums of a few decades ago had interactivity that wasn’t really collaborative—push a button, turn a crank. In most cases, museums were about a one-way transmission of information: They knew the Truth, and your job as visitor was to absorb it, pretty much in the order they dictated. Kind of like listening to an album in the 70s. And just like sitting there and learning that Charlie Chaplin led the Nazi Party in Germany.
Nowadays, more and more museums are actively designing experiences that visitors can participate in and derive meaning from, and also providing avenues for visitors to co-create the experience. They can contribute to art installations, collect data in citizen science experiments, record their own stories, and more – all hail the new museum order. But for a really long time, museums were one-way streets of content delivery and curation, believed by the public to be accurate and true simply because they’re museums. You know. Perfect for communicating systemically biased narratives.
The oldest known museum was founded in 530 BCE by Princess Ennigaldi of the Neo-Babylonian empire, complete with object labels and interpretation. The artifacts, their organization, and interpretation reveal the museum as a narrative: A history of the region and the importance of her familial dynasty.
This use of a museum as a means to establish, communicate, or assert power and validity wasn’t a one-time-only thing. Particularly from the 15th to 19th century, a wide swath of rulers established museums based on their private or national collections of loot. Many of these early museums weren’t public—a purposeful display of control and power. Moreover, when you get down to it, the stuff and stories in a museum are a way of saying ‘look how awesome I am/we are, I/we could buy/steal/smuggle/claim all this stuff. Rulership is our right and destiny.’ Inherent in that is an othering, diminishing, and marginalizing of those cultures that stuff was taken from, and the dissemination of a very specific point of view. History is told by the victors, and museums are a key part of that.
We’re not free of it today. Art and history museums around the world are currently wrestling with this legacy, as they confront ‘decolonizing’ not just their collections, but the way they interpret them and whose voices they center. The old label copy on the Benin bronzes (see above) in the British Museum was some of the most jaw-dropping colonialist pablum around, and generations of school children, tourists, and museum members read and nodded and internalized the implication that the British had every right to take what they wanted by force and subjugate the Edo people (there’s a reason ‘that scene’ in Black Panther was a super-thinly-veiled reference to the British Museum.)
Until recently, museums specialized in barely-questioned mythologizing, in creating and perpetuating narratives of the conquerors about the conquered (see: American-flag emblazoned T-rexes defeating the Nazis!) This isn’t the province solely of history and art museums. For entirely too long a delightfully cringe-inducing paean to the glories of pesticides and herbicides and how they transformed their state’s agriculture endured as a 1950s-hued diorama in a major American natural history museum, as an example—corporate money shapes the stories we tell in museums, too, and that has really impacted science museums, visitors, and cultures for the worse.
So what’s the point of The Time Masheen, since it really doesn’t work and was full of, you know, lies? Compare it to the story told in Spaceship Earth at Epcot; the moments selected (Chaplin, the U.N.) are elevated to moments of history as powerful and crucial as the invention of papyrus, the printing press, and the computer. At its core, it’s about consolidating power, inventing and reinforcing a narrative that elevates and celebrates the ruling class, in this case, the Idiocracy—even if that narrative was made decades, even centuries, prior and is now just mindlessly being parroted. Other moments in the film point to a desire to maintain the status quo, i.e., the power balance, and narratives like The Time Masheen support that status quo. No one in Idiocracy says ‘wait a minute’ and holds the creators of The Time Masheen, much less the government itself, accountable for this insane, incorrect history which apparently is being cheerfully promulgated. It begs the question—if one pauses to reflect on admittedly one minute in the entire movie—who is responsible for combating this kind of misinformation? What about when the misinformation is in a museum and not a movie?
I get it. When I go to a museum, a movie, a theme park, I (generally speaking) want to have a good time. I do not want to have to drag a soapbox with me. But who’s responsible for correcting bad content? I’d argue that while obviously, the museum bears the bulk of the burden (…it’s their museum after all), we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and also help them. These are places in and of our communities: we are stakeholders. Museum staff, with few exceptions, are stretched thin. They don’t have time, dollars, or people power to redo every shitty exhibit from years and years ago. But many are trying. There’s a shift towards re-centering marginalized voices, ceding authority and examining old narratives when redoing old exhibits or developing new ones. It’s not universal by far, but it is happening. (If you’d like to know more about this, an example of this is happening right now, at MASS Action. See How MASS Action could transform museums like Mia for more info.)
But just as we see media outlets giving oxygen to white supremacists out of some notion of ‘fairness’, for a long while many museums engaged in a sort of ‘everyone is entitled to their own view’. Creationists came in and disparaged exhibits that even mentioned evolution, or offered their own guided tours through natural history museums through an anti-evolution lens (and in fact, they still do this at several museums). Some museum boards are scared to engage with these visitors, leaving their staffs to do the best they can with an angry guest.
Multiply this across numerous hot topics – global warming, vaccination, fracking, alternative energy, civil rights, racism. Pretty much think of every eyeroll-inducing-bad-science-revisionist-history bullshit that your Great-Aunt Patty reposts breathlessly on Facebook and will inevitably raise over gravy at Thanksgiving, there’s a museum somewhere which has tried to do an exhibit on it and caught hell—from extremists on either end, from donors, from board members concerned about blowback. Uncritical eyes don’t just give your favorite history museum shit for reframing the narrative to include authentic voices of African Americans or your science museum grief for daring to assert global climate change is real: they co-created the fake news crisis.
We must stand up. We must hold not just museums, but also news media and popular media accountable when they perpetuate racist, heteronormative, ableist, or sexist narratives. We also have to help them stand up to blowback. When it comes to museums, visit. Visit. Get their visitorship numbers up. Write polite letters when you see something wrong, or ask a floor staffer who you can talk to. Help them fundraise if you can. Find out how you can help them secure better local and state support – yeah, maybe show up at that city council meeting where they’re debating supporting your local museum or send a letter detailing the value you see the museum bringing to your community. If they add in a gender-neutral bathroom, write a letter or email thanking them (yes they track that stuff). Volunteer if you can. Confront museums when they are failing their duties, but also do your part to help combat the creeping tide of idiocracy lapping at our cultural centers.
EDITOR’S INTERJECTION: This is where it becomes expressly an issue for interaction design. We can make it easy for visitors to find and use these feedback channels. We can make it easy for museum staff to understand and discuss the feedback. —Chris
Theme Parks are different in terms of how you engage with them. But when the clamoring gets loud enough and the threat to the bottom line dire, hey guess what! Change can happen! So rather than just instagramming ‘omg so sexist’ something offensive at a theme park, write a letter. Make a blog post. Blah blah parable of a pebble and an avalanche. But the inverse is true: when a theme park or brand does something respectful or inclusive, heap praise on them and vote with your dollar. You want to know why Doc McStuffins persists? Because, in part, Disney moved a half billion dollars of product in the first year of the show. Consumers were and are hungry for an inclusive, representational hero character that’s not blonde and has STEM-related career aspirations: Disney was rewarded handsomely for centering a young African-American girl – and the show now has an interracial lesbian mom couple. (Which of course got protested all to heck, making it that much more important to write into Disney and thank them for their inclusive representation, lest they get browbeaten into a retreat.)
We are in a crisis where a large swath of our society is absolutely unable to assess sources and validity of content, doesn’t understand basic science or stats, or even that correlation is not causation (and I’m not saying this is just on one side of the political spectrum—far from it). Museums, as they plan for the future, are asking themselves and each other what they can do to improve critical thinking skills, historical understanding, and science literacy. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Many museums kinda failed at that for a damn long time, with their roots in structures of systemic bias and racism, and their fear of confrontation with angry donors and visitors (read: jeopardizing funding and support). Theme parks presented a sanitized and beautiful take on the world, but for whom? (The history of racism and exclusion in theme and amusement parks is long and painful. For a light and happy read, see Victoria Wolcott’s book Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America.) Theme parks aren’t about critical thinking and inspiring guests to engage with science or history, but they are about crafting narratives around heroes, ideal worlds, aspirational goals. And when they aren’t inclusive or perpetuate harmful stereotypes, they’re harmful to society. They lull us into complacency.
When we – the collective we, as voters, media, museum designers, or theme park designers – don’t call out what’s factually incorrect or morally repugnant (see also: Walt Disney World’s rework of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove the “Wench Auction,” depicting the literal sale of captured and, in some cases, weeping women as wives) and push back against these narratives of jingoistic power, we’re contributing to our own Idiocracy. Just without the glorious, cheese-tastic Time Masheen.
Bonus Track: Fighting Kansan Idiocracy
I live in KS-03 district, the land of Representative Kevin Yoder. To say he’s gone hard right-wing and aligns himself with 45 is an understatement. Sharice Davids is the Democratic challenger: she’s Native American (Ho-Chunk Nation), a former MMA fighter (no really), a Cornell University-trained lawyer, and an out and proud lesbian. Yup.
So in honor of her epic KS-03 battle, I’d love it if you:
- Live here, vote for her.
- Find out how to help disenfranchised voters get to the polls in November. I guarantee you there’s a boots on the ground group where you are working on this. Contact local campaigns and ask who’s organizing; if you have a local NAACP group they may be working on this too. KS-03 is comprised of very wealthy Kansas suburbs and parts of Kansas City, KS- which is 40% minority and way, way less wealthy. Want to know why Kris Kobach has fought so hard to disenfranchise poorer voters and people of color? This district right here is a prime reason. If we succeed in getting out more of the vote in KCK, it’ll hurt Yoder. We see this happening across the country in district after district. Help get voters to the polls.
- Phone bank for a candidate. In a ‘safe’ district where your candidate doesn’t need your help? Phone bank long distance. Check out MobilizeAmerica to make calls for Sharice.
- Or hey. Throw some $$ her way.
Chris: I just did. Thank you, Sharice, and thank you, Cynthia.