Theme parks in the center of research

1 August 2013

Amusement and theme parks are supposed to be fun. These amenities are all about the excitement of roller coasters, about spectacle, and entertainment. That’s it! Is it? American cultural anthropologist Scott A. Lukas has made theme parks his specialty. He is currently at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) as a visiting professor to report on his experiences and to teach, but he also came to learn.

Asking Professor Scott A. Lukas about his research is not all that easy. The cultural anthropologist is more than happy to provide information but he is also an interested listener. He wants to know more about the people he is talking with, about the country he is visiting, about the university and its students.

"I have had some great discussions here," he says. "People have provided me with lots of new ideas and insight. But the biggest surprise was the students. They seem to have the ability to think in a way that I rarely observe in the case of their counterparts in the U.S."

Lukas came to Germany for one semester at the invitation of Dr. Florian Freitag of the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies in Germersheim and Junior Professor Dr. Filippo Carlà of the JGU Department of History. These two were responsible for initiating the project entitled "'Here You Leave Today' – Time and Temporality in Theme Parks." The JGU Center for Intercultural Studies is financing Lukas' stay.

The American Civil War in an amusement park?

Cultural anthropologist Lukas has written three books about the various aspects of his field of research. His collection of articles entitled "The Themed Space," his monograph "Theme Park," and his "Immersive Handbook: Designing Theme Parks and Consumer Spaces" cover the spectrum from Coney Island to Disney World while also considering theme parks that were planned but never constructed. Lukas knows the kind of places and projects he writes about. He was himself once a trainer at Six Flags Astro World in Texas.

His first lecture in Germersheim was on "Coney Island and the 'History Magic' of Theme Parks." Here he outlined the decline of the famous New York amusement park and the plans to revive it. One aspect that Lukas focuses on is whether such parks are suitable as settings for more serious social or cultural issues. He would like to think so. "But I'm afraid I'm not so sure they are."

He cites the example of a planned Disney amusement park that would have had America's Civil War as its central theme. Historians and politicians were quick to criticize as they felt that it would not have been possible nor would it have been desirable to provide an authentic recreation of warfare. Taking such a momentous subject and giving it a frivolous commercial makeover would be offensive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project never actually saw the light of day.

What is truly authentic?

Lukas goes on to ask: "So, what is truly authentic? Is it at all possible to recreate authenticity in a museum or amusement park?" The American doesn't have a quick and easy answer to this and would rather discuss the matter. One thing he's already noticed in Mainz are the houses around the old marketplace in the shadow of the city's venerable cathedral. From the outside, the houses look as if they are centuries old. However, take a peek behind the facades and you will find modern architecture directly below a thin layer of apparently historic patina. The facades were recreated from old pictures of the original buildings. So, where's the authenticity?

Lukas' proseminar at JGU during the summer semester dealt with the various aspects of "The Cultures of Remaking." He was dealing with a phenomenon  that encompasses more than building facades and theme parks. Reinterpretation of traditional motifs is something that occurs in a wide range of different areas. The entire movie industry, for instance, is currently thriving on remakes. "What happens is that material is reworked for a new audience." What was originally a French film can be remade with American actors in an American setting. "This may involve making changes to the storyline and removing things that might confuse the new target audience. To what extent can remakes like this be considered legitimate or productive?"

This is another good question and clearly something just begging to be discussed. Lukas gave his students another example in the form of the reality 'makeover' TV shows in which volunteers are physically transformed to give them a new appearance that is supposedly more attractive and stylish. German TV also presents these shows.

What sort of parks do students want?

"My students at JGU took a very critical line and introduced the concept of inner self into the discussion: Does the new exterior still correspond to a makeover volunteer's inner being?" The students then ran with the idea and applied it to theme parks. Hence, if Disney were to stage the American Civil War in a theme park, it would be necessary to focus on the fundamental elements, the inner core, of this historical event. But can such a factor represent an indicator of authenticity?

In his final JGU lecture, Lukas spoke on the subject of "Theme Parks – From Cultural Remaking to Social Justice." Among his continuing concerns is the question of whether themes associated with social justice or politics can be appropriately integrated in an environment that is primarily commerce-orientated.

He decided to make the students in his proseminar think about this. They were told to design corresponding theme parks. "One group designed a historical theme park as a stage for historical reenactments. Another came up with Eco Land, which dealt with environmental issues. The idea of the third group was an 'anti-love' park. They thought it would be a good idea to show everything that can go wrong in relationships."

Do serious subjects draw paying crowds?

Lukas is full of praise: "All three suggestions were very creative." However, would they survive as business ventures? Did the projects have what it takes to draw the crowds? "Well, we had our doubts about that when we actually looked at these ideas in more detail."

The cultural anthropologist is now planning to write a book about these aspects when he returns to Lake Tahoe Community College in California. He will be going home fortified with stimulating ideas gathered in Mainz and Germersheim.

But enough for the moment about theme parks. Lukas still has tons of questions: "So, what's the story behind the buildings in the old marketplace in Mainz? Were there any protests? And what about the cathedral itself?"