Disneyfying the Past

While reading Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and Nora’s “Between Memory and History”, I was reminded of a poignant moment I had in an undergraduate history course about modern international crimes. Like these readings, we were discussing memory versus history and the possession and appropriation of memory. Breaking from his scripted lecture, the professor, spontaneously and indignantly, brought up the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, MA. While at first seemingly irrelevant, he went on to explain that he was a Quaker and that his multiple great-grandmother had been accused of being a witch and was burnt at the stake. He therefore found the ‘Disneyfied’ Salem Witch Museum to be repellant and trivialized his ancestor’s pain.
In that moment, I understood, more than I would over the entirety of the course, the difference between memory and history, as posed by Nora. To me, the Salem witch trials was an unfortunate moment in American history (amongst many others), but was surveyed with a horrified, yet detached ‘otherness’; what Trouillot describes as seeing the past as fixed (147-148). Yet, to my professor, this moment in time was not merely another moment, but was one that had been shared through his family’s collective memory, a trauma passed down through generations. Being able to see this history through his eyes made it authentic in that his memory was, what Trouillot explains, the “vital connection to the present” (143). In this respect, Nora’s interpretation of memory as “a perceptually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present” (8) is what Trouillot calls “historical authenticity” (148). To not silence the past we must address honestly the past’s repercussions in the present. Like the Salem Witch Museum, the slavery themed Disneyland would have trivialized the past, not because of possible inaccuracies, but because it would not have addressed the implications of slavery in the present day.

One thought on “Disneyfying the Past”

  1. This is powerful! This seems related to conversations about tours of plantations and the romanticization of slavery and plantation life in films like Gone with the Wind. I’m interested to hear from Amelia, who worked at Monticello, what is was like to be at a site that holds so much trauma for so many descendants of enslaved people, but is also a site of pride and celebration.

    Your post also reminds me that the onus is also on visitors to places like the Salem Witch Museum to consider ways to be respectful at sites of trauma.

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