Lost in Hyperreality: Entering The Museum of Tolerance

Having grown up in America, I thought I understood the myriad of American tourist locations. I believed I was an expert on the American (or at least the Californian) landscape; I thought so, until an Italian man took me on a trip into hyperreality. In one of Umberto Eco’s essays, Travels in Hyperreality, Eco explores the hyperrealistic world of popular tourist locations in America. His main argument is that when visitors come to these locations, what they are seeing is the real and the fake becoming ambiguous and hard to differentiate. With Eco as their tour guide, readers travel to renown American tourist attractions and with a unique critical lens, see them in a way that few have before. He vividly takes the reader through the different type of reconstructions and false worlds, crystallizes the way the real and fake become the same thing, and unveils arguably the most detrimental aspect of hyperreality: ideology being overwritten by profit.

Eco’s brilliant essay shines a silver spotlight on an America that few have ever entered or even known to explore. He delves into prominent tourist locations from wax museums, historical and artistic museums, and our beloved Disneyland, among a plethora of other locations. As members of his tour, readers are granted the vision to see through the indistinguishable despite the numerous methods used to conceal the real and the fake. Having published the essay in 1975, Eco was unable to take a trip into more modern forms of hyperreality, so I will take the driver’s seat and continue his exploration.

Beginning the Journey

An outside view of the museum.

The Museum of Tolerance, located in Los Angeles, California, opened to the public in February of 1993. Families, students, and any curious tourists can travel to the Museum’s beautiful setting in sunny California and enter the doors to the horrific 1940’s Germany through a Holocaust prisoner’s eye for the reasonable price of $15.50. Visitors are put at the forefront of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Walking into the beginning of this guided tour, visitors leave California and enter Berlin, Germany. They see propaganda posters of Hitler on brick walls, bookstores publishing Mein Kampf (Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto which translates into “My Struggle”), and German newspaper stands speaking of the up and coming leader. Hitler’s ubiquitous presence pervades every corner of the German street. Strolling through the Berlin streets, visitors can hear a conversation between a Jewish and American woman about their fear of Hitler’s rise to power and his disgust for the Jewish people. The conversation between the two women is lit up by a spotlight and when they finish speaking, the light dims, and the visitors continue their journey in darkness.

A deep, dark voice overwhelms the room through hidden speakers, informing visitors that they have traveled in time to the fall of 1941. Unknown objects litter the ground, joining the shards of glass from shattered windows nearby. The once pristine brick wall has fallen to broken wood, ominous clues about the increasing tension in the nation. The mysterious voice continues to tell the people of what they are about to hear: a recreation of a conversation between Nazi soldiers speaking of wanting to completely exterminate the Jewish population. Two voices converse about which countries are “Jew-free.” Interestingly enough, the voices have German accents, but are speaking English. When hearing the two “German” men speak, it almost feels as if the conversation is real and taking place now. While listening to these voices, there is a letter facing visitors with a bold light shining on it. Words in large, black font let the audience know that the letter is an “actual document.” This document — amidst all the recreated people, places, and artifacts — is the first authentic piece of writing that visitors come into contact with on the tour. With what the visitor has been immersed in thus far, it is easy to see how the real and the fake become one.

Of course, a small document is not enough to become lost in hyperreality. The true groundbreaking hyperrealism begins when the visitor becomes the prisoner. At this point, the room suddenly becomes dark, darker than it has been throughout the tour. Visitors can barely see a hand in front of them. A ray of light cuts through the darkness, revealing a sign with an eerie message: “Millions passed through gates like these never to return.” The room becomes lighter, if only by a small margin, and prisoners are able to make out the tall gates topped with barbed wire. The weary feeling of imminent doom fills the room, dense and suffocating. There are two doors a person can enter; one reads “Children and others,” the other reads “Able-bodied.”

A segment of the tour where visitors enter as if they were prisoners entering the gas chamber.

Whichever door one chooses to walk through, the destination is the same. At first, there is confusion and wonder: what is this place? Then come the chills, the dawning of a terrible realization that these were the halls of death, the gas chambers that murdered millions. The walls appear diagonal, as if they were closing in on everybody. Covering the floor are scrambled footprints of those that were in this exact spot before, never to leave an able-bodied being again. The room is so silent that the only noise is the pitter-patter of heavy heartbeats. There is no narrator to disclaim that the gas chambers are simply a recreation. It is now impossible to differentiate the feelings of falsity and authenticity. Everything feels real because the visitor becomes the prisoner in the recreated gas chambers even though no toxic gas is being released and everyone’s life is nowhere near danger.

The recreated gas chamber the visitors walk into.
The recreated gas chamber the visitors walk into. If you look closely enough you might be able to see the footprints on the ground.

After exiting the terrifying recreation of the chambers, the “prisoners” become freed by the American Army. There are photos of smiling people who have not seen liberation in years and American soldiers in stoic poses. The worst is over, and the prisoners become visitors once again. In the last part of the tour, there are lights shining in the form of words that direct attention to the floor. The lit words read: “Our World Today.” Televisions are everywhere, all showing different news programs. Some show police brutality, others show destructive Earthquakes, and similar current events. The explicit message of The Museum of Tolerance is exactly that, tolerance is what should be strived for by taking visitors on a tour of the horrific past that was the Holocaust. It is up to those who have experienced the tour to have tolerance and be accepting of those perceived as different in society’s eyes. But the implied message that some visitors of the museum may have overlooked lies within the fake brick walls and the not-so-gas chambers.

While walking through the simulation, heaviness and pain are felt deeply and thoroughly. This is to make visitors attempt to feel how the Jewish men and women felt while they walked through those terrifying barbed wire gates. The kind of pain those people felt is nearly impossible to feel in our present day Los Angeles, California. But visitors get lost in the simulacrum or the recreated world, and truly believe they are experiencing what Holocaust victims experienced those many years ago. The Jewish people were treated like animals, torn away from family members, many never to see another day. To attempt a recreation of the world that was once 1940’s Germany would be a feat much too difficult and morally wrong to do. By placing the real and fake documents, with fake German people of the 40’s, and creating gas chambers like the ones in the concentration camps, suddenly visitors can no longer separate the real and the fake. Visitors should not believe they are in Germany and that they are experiencing what the Jewish people were going through because they aren’t.

The Profit Problem

The last idea raised in Eco’s essay is that in many of the recreated places he visited, he found that ideology was completely overcome by profit. In terms of The Museum of Tolerance this comes into play when the visitors finish the tour, and are lead straight into a gift shop filled with mementos to take away from the experience. Eco explains in his essay, how Disneyland visitors buy ridiculous items to perpetuate the fake world. The ideology of the Museum calls for Tolerance, but that is overwritten by selling keypads, pens, and shirts with the MOT logo everywhere. The overall message that the Museum of Tolerance provides a visitor with is positive, but the hyperreality that the museum perpetuates is one of exploiting tolerance for money. People should not believe that because they are walking through a creation of concentration camps in Germany, that they are actually there and know what it feels like to go through such a traumatic event. The damage begins when visitors become lost in this hyperrealistic world, unable to separate what is real and what is not, and attempt to take on the emotions of those six million prisoners.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. “Travels in Hyperreality.” (1975): 3-58. Web. 31 Aug. 2016. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR2/eco_travels.pdf>.

Unknown. During the tour, entering the gas chamber as a prisoner. Digital image. Museumoftolerance.com. N.p., 2014. Web. <http://www.museumoftolerance.com/site/c.tmL6KfNVLtH/b.4865935/>.

Unknown. Picture inside the recreated gas chambers. Digital image. Museum of Tolerance, 3 Aug. 2016. Web. 31 Aug. 2016. <https://www.timeout.com/los-angeles/attractions/museum-of-tolerance>.

User:Cbl62. Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, March 2008. Digital image. Wikipedia.org. Creative Commons, Mar. 2008. Web. 31 Aug. 2016. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Museum_of_Tolerance,_Los_Angeles,_March_2008.JPG>.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Hi Sydnee, a really good article! I like how you’ve adapted Eco’s essay for an interesting discussion of contemporary memory studies and U.S. tourism. There’s a lot of debate amongst Holocaust historians as to whether exhibitions like the one you’ve talked about weaken the cultural importance of the Holocaust, and hollow out its meaning for capital gain; or if they in fact make this history more accessible and relevant to the contemporary world. I wonder whether the discussion would be different if we considered these kinds of exhibitions elsewhere in the world- would that problem of being ‘lost in hyperreality’ still exist if we were closer to where that hyperreality was trying to take us (in this case, Germany)?

    All in all, really enjoyed reading!

    • Sydnee Larson

      Thank you for this thoughtful response to my article. I am glad you enjoyed the read! The debate you mentioned amongst Holocaust Historians is surely an interesting one. I’ve never thought of the Museum of Tolerance as weakening the cultural importance of the Holocaust, but I see how that may be an issue. The MOT has so many valuable lessons to teach, especially to the younger generation, but where do we draw the line on simulations and recreations of reality? It could very well be hurting the historical importance. Even being closer to the source, as you mention, we still can’t go back in time and view these atrocities. Perhaps being closer to the source might even make the hyperreality worse because then visitors may feel even more connected to the feelings of Holocaust survivors which is harmful. It’s an interesting conversation and I could go on and on about the topic! I guess I should quit now or I may continue down the rabbit hole! Thanks again for the thought-provoking response!

  2. FredLester

    I’ve read some of Eco’s stuff in semiotics. I find myself drifting off when I start hearing talk about certain things being more “real” than others. It strikes me as a little flighty and postmodernish, though I suppose I’d like it more if I’d had more exposure to the various terms d’art he uses.

    • Sydnee Larson

      The first time I read Eco’s essay I was confused and kind of disoriented, which I think was intended on his part. The study of semiotics can induce drifting for sure because there is not finite answer to the questions hyperreality poses. Some find this engaging others find it maddening, and responses vary across the spectrum. Thank you for the comment!

  3. Hyperreality (who knew there was such a thing?).

  4. Violeta

    Umberto has opinions almost as erratic as his subject matter! I love it!

  5. I tried and tried but I couldn’t understand anything in Travels in Hyperreality. Better read at leisure and not in binge I suppose. I’m sorry, I just cannot finish this book!

    • Sydnee Larson

      Not a fun binge read unless you enjoy being lost and confused! I had to read his essay multiple times before realizing the brilliance and weight of his words. But once you do I think his subject matter becomes less intimidating and much more exciting! Don’t give up on it!

  6. Takisha Goad

    Smart, thoughtful and well written article.

  7. Aramesh

    I don’t understand the excitement about Eco. These essays are boring! And fail to address the ‘hyperreal’ in any theoretically rigorous or stylistically interesting way…

    • Sydnee Larson

      I’m sorry that his essay didn’t appeal to you. Hyperreality isn’t for everyone. Because the idea of it is so abstract, many don’t see the meaning or importance of it. His essay on hyperreality specifically delves in deep to a lot of landscapes in America, but perhaps he could be more clear in his addressing of the hyperreal. Criticism is an important aspect when reading Eco and sometimes I get lost in his words and don’t critique the content! Thank you for the different critical perspective!

  8. Great popular exploration of a variety of cultural goings-on.

  9. I’ve read the Portuguese translation of Travel in Hyperreality. Excellent, should be mandatory in all graduation courses. Totally fun – and the bit at the end about oral roberts university nearly killed me through laughter.

  10. This article introduced me to Eco, so glad I read it.

  11. Expansive and logical article.

  12. Truly a joy to read anything by Eco and any piece discussing his work; one of the world’s greatest modern thinkers.

    • Sydnee Larson

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my piece on Eco and I adamantly agree with your comment. His thought process seems to be other worldly and so exciting! He has me hanging off every word!

  13. A world we’re living is a world full of hiper-realities.

  14. I had never heard about hyperreality in museums before, this is a good description of the museum and I think it´s worth mentioning that there are very different Tolerance Museums, like in Israel, Mexico, etc. and that their experience are unique, but also different.

    • Sydnee Larson

      That is worth mentioning for sure! There are many ways in which reality can be warped and recreated all round the world. Eco gives examples of many different locations in America that have some form of hyperreality, not just museums. You’re absolutely right to bring to light places all around the world that hyperreality sinks its teeth into!

  15. Brandon T. Gass

    Enlightening article!

  16. Albrecht

    Easy intellectual reading, both Eco’s essays and this article. Nothing groundbreaking…like have coffee with a professor friend that hones his lecture skills on you.

  17. Umberto’s work is just brilliant!

  18. Coppola

    Slogging through semiotics in translation is a joy, when you are reading Eco.

    • Sydnee Larson

      I agree! Eco brings to life ideas that seem abstract and difficult to grasp. I don’t even feel like I’m reading when I approach his essay, rather like I am being guided on a journey. He is a brilliant writer and his attention detail is truly amazing.

  19. albee

    I think I need to make a visit to the Museum of Tolerance.

    • Sydnee Larson

      Yes, maybe going and deciding for yourself would be a good idea. I have always loved the MOT, but looking at it through this certain critical lens may give way to a door of possible issues with some aspects of the musuem.

  20. Matt Sautman

    This is brilliantly written. I may incorporate it into one of my classes sometime in the near future! I think it could generate great discussion.

    • Sydnee Larson

      Thank you for the lovely comment! I think this topic could generate a lively and thought-provoking conversation in the classroom!

  21. The Holocaust, one of the most horrific events in the history of mankind, should never be simulated. It is impossible to recreate the true experience and I think that it dishonors those who actually went through the atrocities first hand to try and recreate the situations. Not sure that I am interested in visiting this museum.

  22. Benjamin Brandall

    Great piece. It’s also interesting you bring up tourism in relation to hyperreality. It made me wonder how public misremembering and misconception shapes tourists reactions to well known places when they visit for the first time. I’m wondering how many react to the Mona Lisa like I did when I first saw it: “Surely this isn’t the _real_ one? It’s too small.”

    • Sydnee Larson

      Tourism in relation to hyperreality is really interesting because of that misrepresented view of the actual thing. I think you would really enjoy Umberto Eco’s original essay! He has a lot to say about tourism in connection to hyperreality. His example of Disneyland gives readers a new perspective because it is a complete fantasy world, yet many get lost in the fantasy and buy into the fake reality. Very interesting!

      • Last time I was at the Walk of Fame in LA, people used to have their picture taken with a professional camera attached to a tall tripod that was placed above any star you wanted (a service that costed around 20 bucks). Then the picture was digitally edited to remove unwanted background and to highlight the star’s name. The result looked fake AF, even though it was as real as it can be.

  23. Joseph Cernik

    A interesting essay on a museum I only briefly heard about. Well, there is another place I should try to visit on my journeys.

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