- Historic Sites
Mammon & Monuments
Commercial enterprise and history seldom make comfortable bedfellows
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
Other attractions included a “Continental Tour” on the Santa Fe: … buckskin-clad riders of the Pony Express, red-shirted firemen who will strive every twenty minutes (with the help of any volunteer patrons who want to pump the old-fashioned fire engines) to put out the Chicago Fire of 1871; camps of authentic Red Indians from seven tribes, some of whom with gun and tomahawk will be raiding the Santa Fe express as it crosses the Great Plains.
From time to time during the summer of 1961 I heard, unwillingly, an FM radio commercial, extolling Freedomland as “a world of fun and adventure where you can ride high in the sky in an open ore-basket"; “also there is dancing to big-name bands.” The announced addition of a Roman chariot race, King Arthur’s knights, the Three Musketeers, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Bengal Lancers indicated that the theme had been expanded beyond American history. I do not know what has happened since.
A major misfortune of such abuses of history is that they may mislead the uninformed. A seventy-twoview, brightly colored souvenir booklet, The Adirondacks, The World’s Largest Park , widely offered to tourists in upper New York State, illustrates on terms of absolute equality with the basically genuine Fort Ticonderoga, the reconstructed Fort William Henry at Lake George and a variety of purely commercial attractions, such as Storytown, U.S.A.,—“where your favorite nursery rhymes come to life” plus outlaws and jungle safaris—Gaslight Village, a reconstruction of the “Gay Nineties” with dancing in a beer garden, the imported “Wild West” Frontier Town, the Land of Makebelieve, and Santa’s Workshop at North Pole, New York.
As commercialism seeks to cloak itself in history, it becomes absolutely essential for legitimate historic houses, restorations, and outdoor museums to avoid even the appearance of evil in their actions. If they disfigure the highways with billboards identical to those of commercial “attractions”; if they offer tawdry “souvenirs,” banners, and penny-catchers in their shops; if they affix bumper placards to visitors’ automobiles; if, from whatever motives, they embrace commercial tactics to increase attendance, how in God’s name can the average man distinguish between the popularization of history and its commercial exploitation? Freedomland indicates that there must be an insurmountable wall between history and the entertainment business, or indeed any other form of commercialism. If historical organizations cannot survive without resorting to such tactics, it is time they died.