What draws me to themed spaces?

KEM_Summer 2014_Me and Edo Set

When people hear me say that I am interested in “themed spaces” (which I am translating in Japanese as テーマ 化した場所 but I’m always looking for a better word), many assume that I am researching only theme parks. They tell me: “If you are studying theme parks, you should look at Tokyo Disneyland because it is very popular in Japan.” When they ask me why I like studying these spaces, I always answer that I’ve liked museums since I was little.

As I am getting settled in Japan and explaining my research to others, I have been frequently clarifying the words “themed spaces.” I will use this blog as a forum to think raw ideas through, as I encounter themed spaces in Japan and elsewhere.

For me, theme parks are not the only themed spaces, although they share the word “theme.” Themed spaces aren’t necessarily a certain kind of place such as a museum or a theme park, nor are they always exclusively for just rides and children. I’m looking for a concise characterization to explain what a themed space is, so I will begin by writing about my former experiences with and what drew me to them.

I first became interested in museums as a child, because I loved interacting with the constructed environment. Although many museums are based on sight– looking at objects behind glass cases is common– I’ve always been intrigued by how an exhibit around a theme come together through objects and visitors’ interactions with them.

I encountered living history museums in middle school, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA. I remember being fascinated by how the re-enactors spoke in an older style of English with visitors and each other, how they demonstrated candle-making to us students, and how we were able to try candle-making. That visit was memorable to me, because of the kinds of interactions I had and not only because of the educational content. In their monograph about Colonial Williamsburg, Richard Handler and Eric Gable criticize how that style of historical performance masks the social history of the period despite the Colonial Williamsburg’s educational ideals. While I agree with their assessment that certain problematic aspects of history are erased in such performances, I found myself wishing to know more about the people-to-people interactions that generate such a historical atmosphere. It’s not enough for me to absorb the statement: “People go along with these experiences because it is fun and easy.” Are they really that fun and easy to go along with?

And it’s not just about the people but also about how the setting works:

How does such an experience come about? How do people and objects make it come alive around the theme of American colonial heritage? How do they communicate with each other, when visitors don’t know initially how to act around unfamiliar settings and people and when the frontline actors don’t know how visitors will respond? What kind of emotional labor do the frontline actors have to put in to induce these interactions with objects and people? These questions can’t be answered if I only look at brochures and pamphlets, since they address on-the-ground spontaneous interactions.

Having moved around and lived with two different cultures, I am also interested in the following question: How does cultural communication happen if not everyone is familiar with a particular culture?

I find myself asking such questions about themed spaces in Japan, which apply to several types of institutions. Scholars have looked at Disneyland as a global theme park in Japan, but I’d like to focus on how Japanese heritage is communicated in these sites.

“Historical re-enactment” is a term that came up in conversation, but my research is not only about people performing but also the space and timeframe in which the historical atmosphere takes place. As a result, I’m not studying one particular institution, but those that incorporate immersive and interactive elements around a certain theme – such as Japanese heritage and identity. I’d like to see how these experiences operate in different styles with overlapping but distinct economic and social networks. I am not equating museums and festivals as institutions, for instance, and studying their cultural communication strategies.  I wonder how performance, communication, and the senses go together at these sites.

Some preliminary thoughts:

I’ve seen and participated in several festivals in Japan and received the impression that they bound off localities into a special timeframe and space. Whether it is a religious ritual or a historical re-enactment of a procession, certain objects such as good luck charms and ceremonial clothing and events happen during this time and people learn to act in a way that is outside of ordinary life.

I’ve discovered that some cultural theme parks are not just amusement parks with rides, but more similar to living history museums in the US where people perform historical characters (like ambassador interpreters of the historical era), where buildings are re-created, and where theater performances reflect the era.

Museums in Japan can also be very interactive. Guides interpret exhibits for visitors as they point out objects of notes and disseminate information. Some museums also have building replicas for visitors to explore and objects for people to touch and interact with. Therefore, I am interested in those that not only incorporates sight, but also actions – taking photos, moving around in spaces to interact with an exhibition, entering buildings, touching objects, etc.



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