The wonderland of war...

Tuesday 21 Feb 2012

Napoleonland: France’s answer to American Disneyland makes light of serious matters

A recent proposal by the French government to build a themed amusement park dedicated to Napoleon raises questions about the public’s appetite for imagined landscapes and whether such serious historical matters should be relegated to the level of kitsch or properly memorialized.

Having just returned from Las Vegas, one of larger 'theme parks' in the world, I was able to experience first hand that city’s ‘take’ on real places as experienced through the themed resorts of New York, New York; Paris, Vegas; Luxor Vegas, and the Venetian. My conclusion is that these places offer little if nothing of the flavor of their namesake destinations and that they are essentially appetizers for the real meal: the gambling casinos. As 'hooks' intended to draw visitors in and keep them coming back, themed destinations seem to have waned in popularity, perhaps because they’ve been revealed for what they truly are, mere stage sets in an otherwise culturally bereft environment. In Las Vegas, visitation to such venues is down and the city has the highest unemployment in the US and has a lion’s share of the nations foreclosure. It’s safe to say that what once worked here is working no more, which perhaps explains why the city is abandoning the building of 'themed resorts' in favor of building core urban components, such as streets and plazas, residences, and cultural facilities. Which brings me to Napoleonland, a new amusement park to be built on a historic battleground site in Montreau, France just south of Paris.

The vision of former French minister Yves Jégo, Napoleonland will be the first memorial, if you will, to honour the former French ruler. But rather then honouring Napoleon with a proper memorial, Jégo has chosen instead to pay homage to Napoleon with a rather macabre venue that features of all things a water show that recreates the battle of Traflgar, a re-enactment of Napolean’s defeat of the Russo-Austrian Army at the Battle of Auesterlitz featuring a ski run repleat with frozen bodies of soldiers and horses, and a re-creation of the beheading of Louis XVI on the guillotine, all of it on the site of one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, the Battle of Monterau and all in good fun. While the proposal does call for a proper museum, the general gist of the project is that of a carefree environment that is a perfect weekend getaway. 'Its going to be fun for the family', Jego told the London Telegraph.

In taking the amusement park route to mark an important historical event, Jégo is making light of a rather serious moment in history and bringing to the Battle of Montreau a game show like mentality. Imagine if we took the same tact at Ground Zero instead of what is being built there now and you begin to see how unpopular and disrepectul such an approach would be.

Maybe Jégo feels that being so far removed from the Battle of Montreau makes a difference here. But regardless 'theme-parks' like this one or those in Las Vegas are not faring well in general or in France either. Take for example Euro Disney, which has been on the verge of bankruptcy on more than one occasion. As Josh Sanborn of the London Times so rightly noted in his article about Napoleonland, 'wouldn't Disneyland be better if its grounds were scattered with war casualties and 18th century beheadings?'

Welcome to the wonderland of war.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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