“The Architecture of Reassurance”

Some thought the Walker Art Center opening its doors to Mickey Mouse was a dark day for Art. Museums, however, have been edging into pop culture for years, though, at least since the Museum of Modern Art’s “High and Low” exhibit, and more recently in efforts such as the Whitney’s show on Warhol and fashion. It turns out that the real question was not what Mickey will do to Art, but what the museum had to say about Mickey.

“The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks” must have presented a unique challenge in this regard. How to take apart “the method behind the magic” of what curator Karal Ann Marling describes as Disney’s consummately constructed, “systematic commercial enterprise”? Perhaps most daunting was the inevitability that viewers would, despite the show’s arch subtitle, expect more magic than method. Indeed, given Disney’s Pavlovian effect on kids, organizers attempted to inject “fun” with an elaborate Gallery Guide that included games, as well as the Art Lab, a place to park youngsters bored with the endless renderings, models, and plans. Because ultimately, the show was a lot more didactic than it was fun; one was simultaneously overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material, and underwhelmed at what it conveyed.

The first gallery charted the influences that coalesced in Walt’s vision for a wholesome alternative to seedy amusement parks—the model-steam-train craze, various World’s Fairs and expositions, Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village—as well as the development of Disneyland itself, including footage from its opening day in 1955. From here, the exhibit roughly followed the physical layout of the Disney parks: the next gallery is devoted to models and drawings of Main Street, USA, which led to a display of Fantasy Land’s fairy-tale castles, and beyond, the double-meta Toon Town (a Fantasy Land version of Main Street, itself a fantasy of small-town life). By that time, even grown-ups had probably absorbed enough of the painstaking detail and big-concept thinking that go into “imagineering”—and there was still Tomorrow Land, Frontier Land, Adventure Land, the Disney Simulations, Disney in the Real World . . .

And yet, despite such pointless exhibits as a passenger seat from the Alien Encounter attraction, there were some intriguing details to be gleaned from all the documentary paraphernalia. In a 1969 drawing, for example, artist Herbert Ryman added a touch of subversive spice to the ultra-nice agenda, populating his proposed “cross street” to Main Street with leggy women in big sunglasses and a bikini-clad babe at dead center. A 1956 Rocket to the Moon poster was altered with masking tape obscuring a TWA logo, perhaps signaling a wrinkle in the intercorporate “synergy” that helps shape Disney’s public presentation.

Overall, curator Marling, citing a preponderance of uninformed or unreasonably harsh Disney bashing, made the show assiduously acritical (the catalogue includes Greil Marcus’ critique of the Disney critique). For their part, Walt Disney Imagineering gave her an all-access badge at the company’s archives and reportedly butted out thereafter. So what was its stake in this? Maybe the lure of a museum’s upscale publicity and intellectual cachet. One could also chalk it up to Disney’s growing penchant for reflexively deconstructing its entertainment hegemony, which played such a noted role in last year’s movie Hercules.

Of course, with the increasingly businesslike demands on museums, the bottom line here was attendance; and like the theme parks themselves, The Architecture of Reassurance was designed for numbers (having originated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, it’s also traveling to Los Angeles and New York). If it indeed packed ’em in, the draw probably had more to do with the blue-chip brand value of its subject than with anything the show had to say about it—and damned if some viewers don’t feel they didn’t get much bang for their buck.

Julie Caniglia