Even from half a nation away, how people spent their free time and what an amusement park is supposed to be like were undoubtedly influenced by New York’s famous Coney Island amusement park.
Those influences and more are the subject of a new fun and interactive temporary exhibit opening at the Johnson County Museum on Aug. 31. Coney Island - Visions of an American Dreamland is the name of this exhibit, which will remain on display through Oct. 17.
“Coney Island was pretty far from Johnson County, and yet it shaped the way Johnson Countians and Kansas Citians enjoyed their free time,” said the museum’s Curator of Interpretation Andrew R. Gustafson. “As more Americans took jobs in cities and had more leisure time, Coney Island represented that need for diversion, the escapism from everyday life that people naturally crave. Amusement parks in general represent that, but none compare to Coney Island. From the foods that fair-goers enjoy on the midway to the rides we ride at carnivals, Coney Island influenced those things. Even local historic amusement parks - Electric Park and Fairyland Park in Kansas City, and to a degree Hocker Grove Park and Aviation Park in Johnson County - were influenced by what Coney Island was offering, building, hawking, and selling.”
This temporary exhibit will take place at the Johnson County Museum, located inside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. Exhibit admission is included with regular museum admission rates of $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children ages one to 18, and free for children under one. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and is closed on Sunday. In order to promote physical distancing, the Johnson County Museum is offering limited admission and a mid-day cleaning. Museum admission does not include access to KidScape. For admission to the museum and KidScape, please visit JCPRD.com/museum
This traveling exhibition is made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is adapted from the traveling exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 and organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., former Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. It was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, and The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc. It was adapted and toured for NEH on the Road by Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Gustafson said interactive aspects of this exhibit “include several audio-visual elements, from videos to projected movies, as well as sounds and a funhouse mirror.”
He added that in light of COVID-19, the museum is working with the Mid-America Arts Alliance to develop cleaning protocols specifically for this exhibit.
Gustafson said he believes this exhibit carries a deeper theme for Johnson County specifically that relates to escapism.
“Suburbia is often portrayed as an American paradise, with backyard havens, driveways with cars, and new homes in a perfect line,” he said. “Yet, there was a monotony to suburban experience - commute to work, the long workweek, housework, yardwork. Diversions became even more important - in the same way families loved spending time in a community pool or the King Louie West bowling alley, families and young people traveled to amusement parks on weekends. They offered cheap thrills, exotic foods, and bizarre entertainers. Things that everyday life - whether lived in suburbia, downtown in a big city, or in the fields and hills of rural America - could not offer. And it is why Americans - humans across the globe, really - still go to amusement parks, theme parks, carnivals, and fairs.”
“Coney Island occupies a special place in U.S. history—even if you never visited there, you’ve likely heard of it. In its 150 year history, it went from a watering hole for the wealthy to a marvel for the masses. Coney Island set the bar for other amusement parks around the country. The parks at Coney Island always had the newest rides and the biggest thrills. Coney Island helped define something new in American society: free time, and what one could do with it. As more Americans took jobs in cities and had more leisure time, Coney Island represented that need for diversion, the escapism from everyday life that people naturally crave.”
A related virtual History on Tap program called Ups, Downs, Loops and a Lot of Fun: A History of Rollercoasters and Amusement Parks will feature Rollercoaster enthusiast Paul Drabek talking about the history and thrills of the popular amusement park ride, beginning at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1. The cost for this one-hour program is $6 for non-museum members or $4.80 for museum members, who must register by phone at (913) 831-3359 to claim their discount. One week prior to the event, all registered participants will receive an email with a Zoom link and instructions on how to proceed. For more information about this program or to register by phone, call (913) 831-3359 or register online at www.jcprd.com