Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Britain's Main Street USA: An Analytical Tour of Beamish Open Air Museum Part 1

Here, age relives fond memories of the past...

I have a big interest in the internationalization of Disney theme parks, from the balance struck between the local language and English, the presence of the host culture, and the changing focus, and even outright exclusion, of certain aspects to tailor them to the country. As early as Disney’s first step outside the United States with Tokyo Disneyland, there were concerns whether Main Street USA, a land fuelled by Americana, would resonate with foreign guests. The result was World Bazaar, a combination of the traditional Main Street with Epcot's World Showcase and a touch of Victorian exhibition - an outcome which worked, but not at the level of the turn of the century American town.

At Disneyland Paris the concerns returned once more, and an alternate Main Street USA was pushed by Imagineer Eddie Sotto, who designed an entrance land set in the 1920s, an era more familiar to the European audience through its depictions in classic Hollywood cinema. But amongst the elevated New York tramways, Charlie Chaplin silent cinemas and immigrant establishments, the gangsters, speakeasies and Keystone Kops worried Michael Eisner that this new direction would betray the innocence Main Street USA should project. Main Street USA returned to its default, modified only by some small pushes forward in the timeline, adding a motor garage, city billboards and similar touches.

But it was Hong Kong that would make Disney realise that Main Street USA really wouldn't work for a non-Westernized audience. For the large number of Chinese guests travelling into Hong Kong to visit the magic kingdom, no emotional connection was felt towards the alien Victorian town. At an aesthetic level the town was still charming, pinstriped and storybook, but any attempt at pinning down the historical importance of the setting, let alone conjure up an emotional investment, was futile. Whilst the American guests in Anaheim would enter the park to discover their ideal home town, welcoming, heart-warming and nostalgic, the Chinese guests had nothing.

Art Copyright Tim Delaney

Available designs for Shanghai Disneyland suggest that the traditional Main Street setting is about to be scrapped. Drawings by Imagineer Tim Delaney show three possible alternatives: a Hollywood Main Street, with Chinese Theater, Brown Derby and Walt Disney Studios gates, a Forest Village, with windmill, tree houses and fairy style tree dwellings, and a 'Whimsy' Main Street, with a highly audacious, Downtown Disney style approach.

Nevertheless, I notice that none of these suggestions attempt to fulfil the role Main Street played in Walt Disney's mind; a place for the aged to relive fond memories of the past - where children could see how their grandparents lived, and stories of golden memories of the past could be remembered and passed down. Being uninformed about Chinese history, I began to ponder what a Main Street USA would be like if built in the country I am most familiar with, the United Kingdom.

The attraction I visited just a few days ago revealed it: Beamish Open Air Museum, a 300 acre realization of everything a Main Street Great Britain (perhaps Royal Street?) would draw from.

Beamish Museum, 'The Living Museum of the North', is an attraction in County Durham, England which, since its opening in 1970, aims to capture the spirit of North East Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian England and recreate various once-common sights of the area at the climax of industrialisation in the early 20th century. It is not a theme park, but neither is it a typical museum: the displays are not hidden behind glass cabinets or even rationed amongst faux-interactive displays - the more than 300,000 artefacts, from the smallest ring to the imposing coal colliery, are out and available amongst period appropriate locations, explained by staff dressed in period appropriate dress: this is a place built to retain a memory of the regions disappearing past.

Whilst Disney and Beamish's end goals may be different, the former to make money and the latter to educate, they both set out to achieve them in the same way: by transporting guests to another time and place, and entertain them whilst doing so. Beamish receives around 350,000 visitors annually (roughly 1,000 daily), and requires a yearly budget of £4,000,000 to operate.

Beamish Museum is divided into roughly four areas (although on one occasion I found these referred to as zones):
  • the Pit Village, containing the mining village, mines and colliery,
  • Pockerly, containing Pockerly Old Hall, Pockerly Waggonway, and the Georgian landscape,
  • Home Farm, also including the nearby machinery barn, and
  • the Town, containing numerous shops, the park, the fun fair, and the train station.
Being spread out across 300 acres, each of the sections are linked not only by pathways but also by tramlines and genuine roads, travelled by electric trams, horse-drawn trams, omnibuses, vans and numerous other forms of appropriate transportation.

The ingenius way this horse-drawn tram turns around was demonstrated...

It's able to rotate!

The layout interested me for a particular reason; at the end of the day I, nor any of the people I asked, had been struck by 'museum feet' - the ache plaguing theme parks that results from guests walking more than they can comfortably manage and which Walt Disney specifically sought to solve through his hub and spoke park layout. Beamish effectively uses a large loop layout, but this alone is not what solves the problem - in fact, the areas are a significant walking distance apart from one another. Rather, it is the isolated pocket layout which encourages the guests to explore each area completely (wherein everything is easily manageable walking) before moving on to the next area unlikely to return due to the time dedication it requires to move between areas. Imagine a Disneyland where it took ten minutes to travel between Adventureland and Frontierland: at Beamish, this helps the overall experience.

It is perhaps inappropriate to call what Beamish has creating 'theming', as a vast majority of it is genuine. Beamish has very often painstakingly deconstructed historic buildings from around the county and rebuilt them within the museum, or in other cases recreated buildings with rigid conformity to the original plans. The pieces on display are again genuine, very often donated by locals prompting by Beamish's 'you offer it to us and we will collect it' policy. Nevertheless, it is the collation and presentation of the pieces and constructions that has taken Beamish to the next level that parallels it with themed entertainments. Sign posts are minimized, products are sold in now abandoned Imperial measurements, and every effort is made to ensure authenticity in every scene. The terminology may be different, but Show is very much a priority here.

In the next part, I will begin a photo tour with the Pit Village.

Britain's Main Street USA: An Analytical Tour of Beamish Open Air Museum
Jump to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.