Sometimes a Groupon just leaps out at you and demands to be purchased. It’s a bah-gain, after all, so how could you resist?
That’s how Barbara and I ended up visiting Boston’s DreamLand Wax Museum as part of our staycation this week.
There are two intertwined aspects to this place:
- craft (I don’t think I’ll call it art)
- history (mostly American).
The quality of the craft in this case is inconsistent, occasionally achieving surprising realism but often falling far short. We’ll look at a couple of examples along the way, but first you need an overview. After a brief live demo of the process of making wax images, we move into a sequence of rooms containing 44 life-size models of U.S. presidents — from Washington to Trump — each accompanied by a placard of important historical information in the form of bullet points about that president. (Yes, 44, not 45; no one needs two renditions of Grover Cleveland.) After the presidents come religious figures, entertainers/athletes, and assorted others such as Queen Elizabeth and Bill Gates. Altogether about 100 images, which go by faster than you might expect.
So take a look at these two presidents. Yes, that’s Carter on the left and Clinton on the right, although you might not be sure. Other recent presidents, such as Obama, Ford, and both Bushes, are rendered more convincingly, but is this really the best the museum can do for Carter and Clinton?
And then we come to the biographical text. I knew I wouldn’t read every placard, though perhaps I should have. I settled for five; it turned out that three of them contained significant errors, a rate that doesn’t bode well for those that I didn’t read! Take Andrew Johnson, for example. That’s Andrew, not Lyndon. As you remember from AP US History, Johnson was impeached by the House for violating an unconstitutional law but fortunately was (barely) acquitted by the Senate, thereby avoiding the likelihood of turning our separate-but-equal system into a parliamentary one. Let me repeat that he was impeached. And yet the Wax Museum says this:
Perhaps you think I’m being pedantic, but I’m not; this is a serious constitutional issue.
The second error is at least somewhat arguable. In the famous election of 1924, as you again remember from high school, Republican Calvin Coolidge defeated Democrat John Davis (whom you surely don’t remember from high school!) 382–136 in the Electoral College. A third-party candidate, Robert LaFollette, carried one state, Wisconsin, on the Progressive line, but his 13 electoral votes couldn’t affect the outcome. (Do the math.) So an honest description would either say that Coolidge defeated both of them or (or more likely) that he defeated Davis. But the placard in the museum says this:
Finally, and this too might seem pedantic, Gerald Ford was not defeated for “re-election,” as the museum claims, since he was never elected in the first place! He had been appointed… and was defeated for election, not re-election.
We do have to include a shout-out to the only U.S. President who published a significant mathematical proof: James Garfield (see image on the right). Garfield’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem is one of the best of the hundreds of published proofs, and I always teach it to my geometry classes. Unfortunately the bio in the museum placard makes no mention of this accomplishment, nor of Garfield’s pre-presidential accomplishments as a teacher of math and Latin.
All the above errors wouldn’t bother me so much if the museum had merely billed itself as being entertainment, or even as a demonstration of the craft of making wax images. But they make a big deal about providing historical education for kids. Accuracy counts!
PS: If it weren’t for the Groupon, the admission price is far too steep for what you get.
PPS: I want to credit my father for a lot of my knowledge of U.S. history. Almost as much comes from hundreds of conversations with him when I was a kid as it does from my wonderful AP U.S. History course, the best class I had in high school.