Eric Ames


On his book Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments

Cover Interview of May 03, 2009


I hope to challenge and revise the whole idea of theme space as being an essentially American phenomenon, which begins with Disneyland and goes into other theme parks, theme restaurants, shopping malls, and so on.  Theme space has a history, and it has been imagined and constructed in many different ways.  In the late nineteenth century, it was defined by the wide-scale collection and physical transport of materials to the spectator, as evidenced by Hagenbeck’s live animal environments and ethnographic performances.  In this case, themed environments were built with objects and bodies that had literally been imported from other parts of the globe, to be arranged, transformed, and exhibited in public.  Some members of the audience were clearly aware that the experience of vicarious travel, which they found to be so exciting, was only made possible by the actual movement of the surrounding objects, animals, and people on display.  The main difference between themed environments of today and their nineteenth-century predecessors is the emphasis on the signs and traces of physical presence within the space of display, as opposed to the contemporary fascination with “virtual reality.”

And yet the Hagenbeck material, which extends all the way from live animal environments and performances to early silent films, turns out to be extremely useful for addressing questions of change over time.  It is the double nature of Hagenbeck’s entertainments—as devoted to both the material world of collecting and the imaginary world of storytelling—that makes it rich ground for rethinking the origin of theme space.

© 2009 Eric Ames