Sep 5, 2021–Mar 27, 2022

The Architecture of Staged Realities

What is the social and cultural impact of Walt Disney’s legacy?
Musempark 25, Rotterdam 3015 CB
Tue–Wed 10 am–5 pm, Thu 10 am–9 pm, Fri–Sun 10 am–5 pm

His characters may be reassuringly unambiguous, yet the man himself was anything but. So what is the social and cultural impact of Walt Disney’s legacy? In this exhibition, on show at Het Nieuwe Instituut from September 2021, curator Saskia van Stein examines the influence of Disney’s films and thinking on today’s built environment and sense of identity.

Walt Disney’s fantasies have grown from temporary distractions on the cinema screen into defining influences on global pop culture. The cartoonist, along with the empire he founded, has won both praise – for his technological innovations and the apparent simplicity and recognisability of his storytelling – and notoriety. The ingenuity with which he seamlessly entwines fairy tales and reality is accompanied by a compelling and one-sided conception of what the resulting wonderful worlds – and their inhabitants – should look like.

Walter Elias Disney (1901–1966) created on- and off-screen fantasy worlds in which viewers and visitors can temporarily escape everyday reality. His “wonderful world” had a modest beginning in the 1930s with cartoons and animated shorts but, with the creation of full-length films, theme parks, resorts and cruise vacations, it mushroomed into a global media empire over the following decades. The staging of an alternative reality was not confined to the movies and the Disneyland parks. With every step in the development of the company, the image of Walt, and his Walt Disney Company, has been carefully cultivated and expanded.

That constructed impression – of Disney as a carefree genius, the “father of the middle class”, whose company produces feel-good environments for the whole world – has a downside. With a blend of nostalgia, utopianism, simplification and cuteness, Walt Disney entices his audiences to immerse themselves in a world where reality and fiction merge. Inspired by European literature and architecture, Disney, known as the embodiment and champion of the American Dream, underlies a highly specific and limited type of cultural production. This propagates a largely uniform identity, with the traditional white family at its heart. The animated characters and storylines affirm and reinforce gender roles and racial stereotypes, helping to normalise discrimination and the exclusion of everyone who is “different”. As part of this project, Het Nieuwe Instituut and the curator are actively committed – including by providing work assignments – to making room for voices and perspectives that are insufficiently represented, or deliberately marginalised, in Disney’s oeuvre and legacy.