October 11, 1996

Simulated Worlds

Simulated worlds, Civil War reenactments, wax museums, simulated coal mines, fake ethnic restaurants, an ersatz Medieval castle and other re-created worlds that thrive all across America.



Host Ira Glass plays clips from Jessica Yu's documentary Men of Reenaction about Civil War reenactments, where the real battle is the one over who is properly authentic and who is not. (5 minutes)

Act One

Travels in Hyperreality

Host Ira Glass uses Italian author Umberto Eco's essay Travels in Hyperreality as a guidebook to American simulated worlds. Eco says that the urge to create these miniature simulated worlds is a very American impulse — a significant American aesthetic — and one that's not often discussed. Ira visits the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, stops by a fake coal mine under Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, and discusses "the poor man's Hearst Castle" — a California hotel called the Madonna Inn. (13 minutes)

Act Two

Dinosaur Exhibit

Writer Jack Hitt discovers that the world of dinosaurs is a man-made creation, a simulated world that may or may not accurately reflect what happened on earth 100 million years ago. Talking with dinosaur experts like Jack Horner (whose work was the basis of much of the film Jurassic Park), Hitt finds that most of what you think you know about dinosaurs is probably wrong, and that Americans' ideas about dinosaurs go through "fashions" that reflect the national mood: We believed dinosaurs were more aggressive when we were on the brink of World Wars One and Two. And these days we focus on their family values. (16 minutes)

Act Three

Medieval Times

Ira takes a Medieval scholar from the University of Chicago, Michael Camille, to Medieval Times — a chain of fake castles where visitors eat Medieval food and drink Medieval Pepsi and watch a supposed recreation of a Medieval jousting tournament. The scholar finds that there are many historical inaccuracies, but that Medieval Times does capture something essential and interesting about the spirit of the Middle Ages. (19 minutes)

Postscript: Sadly, Michael Camille, the wonderful scholar in this story, passed away in 2002. You can read about Camille at the University of Chicago website, or on the UK's Guardian Unlimited website. Michael's books are still in print, though aimed at an academic audience. The one that touches most directly on the things he talks about on our show is Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Reaktion Books - Essays in Art and Culture).

Act Four

Simulating Worlds On The Radio

Ira Glass worked for NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered for seventeen years, and shares a few thoughts on the devices he and his colleagues used to simulate the real world on those shows. (2 minutes)