Dr. Michelle Demeter defended her dissertation “Imagineering a Nostalgic Past and Utopian Future: Walt Disney’s Attractions at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair” under the direction of Dr. Robert Neuman in the fall of 2022. Michelle’s research provides the first academic analysis of the four Disney attractions that debuted at the fair: It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Ford Magic Skyway, and the Carousel of Progress. She analyzes how Disney’s interpretations and expressions of historical narrative, authenticity, and nostalgia allowed each attraction to engage with or avoid the social and cultural concerns of the United States and the world at large.
Dr. Neuman writes,
“Michelle’s dissertation focuses on attractions created by Walt Disney and his Imagineers for four pavilions commissioned by corporate and state sponsors at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Although developed in the 1960s, these attractions remain relevant today because they still exist in various iterations in Disney theme parks. Moreover, they continue to inspire comparable attractions in amusement parks and at historical sites. Despite their Disney pedigree, however, they have received little attention from academic scholars. By tracking down primary sources in the archives of the sponsors, Michelle makes important contributions to several fields — the history of world’s fairs, the rise of robotics, and Disney Studies.
Michelle demonstrates how Walt Disney, having created Disneyland in 1955, sought a decade later to advance the art of themed attractions in a way that entertained and educated while selling ideas and commercial products. In these four very different World’s Fair attractions, the Imagineers used cutting-edge technology combined with narrative, song, and theater. Borrowing from several theoretical models, her dissertation expands on the efforts of earlier historians in describing the Disney penchant for imaginative nostalgia and utopianism. One of her overarching themes is the Disney brand of realism, most evident in the ‘lifelike’ dinosaurs and cavemen for the Ford pavilion and the robotic Lincoln for the State of Illinois pavilion. Despite their seeming ‘realism,’ they are fantasy creations. Finally, Michelle does not shy away from addressing Disney’s failure to consider contemporary social issues that might have benefited from being referenced at the fair.”
Dr. Demeter’s broader research centers on the visual cultures of the twentieth-century United States, with an emphasis on world’s fairs and amusement parks. She is especially interested in themes of nostalgia, historical imagination, and hyperreality, as her research considers how these works influence and reflect societal and cultural norms through their expressed visual narratives.
During her time as a PhD student, Demeter received a Mason Dissertation Research Grant and an FSU Dissertation Research Grant to conduct research at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Illinois State Archives in Springfield. She also received a Clark Travel-to-Collection Grant from The Benson Ford Research Center to conduct research at The Henry Ford Collections. She was accepted into two workshops dedicated to “The World’s Fair Since ‘64” held in Washington, DC and Milan, Italy (in conjunction with the 2015 Expo) sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation of the Smithsonian Institution. This research resulted in a publication in World’s Fairs in the Era of the Cold Wars (Pittsburgh Press, 2019), as well as presentations of her work at the Lemelson Center and the Society for the History of Technology Conference. Dr. Demeter also presented work related to her dissertation and other art history research at the Southeastern College Art Conference and the Popular Culture Association/American Cultural Association.
While completing her doctoral degree, Demeter was hired as the New York University Libraries Head of Undergraduate and Instructional Services. In her role as a faculty tenure-track librarian, she has given dozens of presentations, published numerous journal articles and book chapters, and co-authored one book, Library Programming Made Easy: A Practical Guide for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Of her time in the doctoral program at FSU, Michelle writes,
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Art History Department at FSU. The courses I took made me a stronger researcher, and I developed a more critical eye to evaluating art, history, and culture. I felt inspired, academically challenged, and supported by the faculty — especially by my advisor Dr. Robert Neuman. I am excited to continue my research into visual culture and its impact on U.S. society and historical narrative, specifically in regard to world’s fairs and other entertainment experiences that blend art, education, and amusement in unique and critical ways.”