This should really be paired with Umberto Eco’s essay, Travels in Hyperreality. Sometime in the early 1970’s Eco traveled the United States, stopping by museums and tourist attractions. He toured a number of wax museums, including “Christ in the Smokies.” He witnessed many instances of what he called “hyperreality,” a simulation of reality that exceeds and distorts the actual reality.
It’s a dense piece, so pulling out a few pithy quotes isn’t going to work. So here’s a big chunk about his experience with wax museums:
The whole of the United States is spangled with wax museums, advertised in every hotel—in other words, attractions of considerable importance. The Los Angeles area includes the Movieland Wax Museum and the Palace of Living Arts; in New Orleans you find the Musee Conti; in Florida there is the Miami Wax Museum, Potter’s Wax Museum of St. Augustine, the Stars Hall of Fame in Orlando, the Tussaud Wax Museum in St. Petersburg. Others are located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Estes Park, Colorado, Chicago, and so on.
The contents of a European wax museum are well-known: “live” speaking images, from Julius Caesar to Pope John XXIII, in various settings. As a rule, the environment is squalid, always subdued, diffident. Their American counterparts are loud and aggressive, they assail you with big billboards on the freeway miles in advance, they announce themselves from the distance with glowing signs, shafts of light in the dark sky. The moment you enter you are alerted that you are about to have one of the most thrilling experiences of your life; they comment on the various scenes with long captions in sensational tones; they combine historical reconstruction with religious celebration, glorification of movie celebrities, and themes of famous fairytales and adventure stories; they dwell on the horrible, the bloody;
their concern with authenticity reaches the point of reconstructive neurosis. […]
Between San Francisco and Los Angeles I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Some are crude and unwittingly caricatural; others are more accurate though no less unhappy in their violent colors, their chilling demolition of what had been Leonardo’s vibrance. Each is displayed next to a version of the original. And you would naturally—but naively—suppose that this reference image, given the development of color photo reproduction, would be a copy of the original. Wrong: because, if compared to the original, the three-dimensional creation might come off second-best. So, in one museum after the other, the waxwork scene is compared to a reduced reproduction carved in wood, a nineteenth-century engraving, a modern tapestry, or a bronze, as the commenting voice insistently urges us to note the resemblance of the waxwork, and against such insufficient models, the waxwork, of course, wins. The falsehood has a certain justification, since the criterion of likeness, amply described and analyzed, never applies to the formal execution, but rather to the subject: “Observe how Judas is in the same position, and how Saint Matthew . . .” etc., etc.
As a rule the Last Supper is displayed in the final room, with symphonic background music and a son et lumiere atmosphere. Not infrequently you are admitted to a room where the waxwork Supper is behind a curtain that slowly parts, as the taped voice, in deep and emotional tones, simultaneously informs you that you are having the most extraordinary spiritual experience of your life, and that you must tell your friends and acquaintances about it. Then comes some information about the redeeming mission of Christ and the exceptional character of the great event portrayed, summarized in evangelical phrases. Finally, information about Leonardo, all permeated with the intense emotion inspired by the mystery of art. At Santa Cruz the Last Supper is actually on its own, the sole attraction, in a kind of chapel erected by a committee of citizens, with the twofold aim of spiritual uplift and celebration of the glories of art. Here there are six reproductions with which to compare the waxworks (an engraving, a copperplate, a color copy, a reconstruction “in a single block of wood,” a tapestry, and a printed reproduction of a reproduction on glass). There is sacred music, an emotional voice, a prim little old lady with eyeglasses to collect the visitor’s offering, sales of printed reproductions of the reproduction in wax of the reproduction in wood, metal, glass. Then you step out into the sunshine of the Pacific beach, nature dazzles you, Coca-Cola invites you, the freeway awaits you with its five lanes, on the car radio Olivia Newton-John is singing Please, Mister, Please; but you have been touched by the thrill of artistic greatness, you have had the most stirring spiritual emotion of your life and seen the most artistic work of art in the world. It is far away, in Milan, which is a place, like Florence, all Renaissance; you may never get there, but the voice has warned you that the original fresco is by now ruined, almost invisible, unable to give you the emotion you have received from the three-dimensional wax, which is more real, and there is more of it.