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A mother and daughter press their faces against the window of a nondescript building across from the Old State House to catch a glimpse of President Trump. The young girl whips out her smartphone to take a picture. Standing tall, a little less orange than usual, this isn’t the real 45th president. It’s his wax replica.
The unusually silent Trump is one of about 100 figures on display in the Dreamland Wax Museum at 1 Washington St. in Boston. Mother Teresa, Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II — they’ll all be in the rotation, along with many Boston notables and all the U.S. presidents. Eventually, the museum plans to have about 200 figures, though not all will be on view at once.
Until Dreamland’s Monday opening, Boston hadn’t had a wax museum since the Tremont Street location of the famous Madame Tussaud's closed more than 40 years ago.
“It’s something that Boston has needed for a long time,” says Michael Pelletz, Dreamland’s vice president of sales.
But is it? Although the Brazilian-based company behind Dreamland has attractions around the world, this is its first venture in the United States. Elsewhere in the States, wax museums have seen attendance decline, and many have closed. Most recently, the Gettysburg Hall of Presidents in Pennsylvania shut down, auctioned off its figures — and became the butt of late-night jokes.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” John Oliver called the figures “objectively ridiculous,” just before — spoiler alert — the two comedians traded insults between the wax presidents they’d bought at that auction, Zachary Taylor and Warren G. Harding, respectively.
To many people, wax museums are at once creepy and tacky, and the figures they house often look nothing like their famous counterparts. In addition, the centuries-old art form, which once offered a rare chance to see what famous people looked like, is no match for today’s all-knowing internet.
So why open a wax museum in 2017? And what might persuade tourists that a visit is worth $29 (or $25 for seniors, kids 12 and under, college students and the military)?
Ed Rodley, associate director of integrated media at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, has seen social media grow into an important part of the museum experience. Guests want to show their followers the cool places they’re going and the exciting things they’re seeing, he says.
This is especially true for wax museums — the perfect place for visitors to create a unique post for their social media platforms. With 18,000 square feet full of wax figures to explore at Dreamland, the selfie possibilities are endless.
And while attendance to wax museums may be declining, talk about them online is not. Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies popular culture, points to the hashtag #waxmuseum, which currently has over 211,000 mentions on Instagram.
Even talk about a painfully bad Beyoncé wax figure, for example, can still give a museum traction online. In the world of social media, no publicity is bad publicity.
“If people are talking about you on social media,” Rodley says, “that’s certainly better than if people are not talking about you on social media.”
Social media posts also serve as a low-effort way for the museum to promote itself online, something Pelletz calls a tremendous asset to Dreamland, because seeing friends’ posts about the museum may increase people’s interest in going themselves.
“Technology actually makes the [wax museum] experience even better,” a co-owner of the Hollywood Wax museum told Vanity Fair in 2015. “For example, Facebook: the ability to snap a picture next to your favorite star and show the world that you did that, it extends our brand and our experience even more.”
Pelletz and his team knew that just one post of a visitor embracing Tom Brady could have a huge effect.
As Pelletz puts it, “everyone is going to be taking selfies.”
So they built in features to make taking that selfie easier. Right next to the Pats QB, between him and George Washington, will be a charging station for cellphones.
But it isn’t just the selfie opportunities that keep people coming back to wax museums, Deflem says; it’s also the public’s lingering fascination with celebrities.
“Wax museums present an opportunity to have a proxy interaction with famous people,” he says. “It is the proxy interaction that people can have that attracts them to visit the wax museums and ‘meet’ with their favorite celebrities, heroes and villains.”
Here’s what it comes down to: Looking at other people’s selfies with Beyoncé or clicking on red-carpet photos of Brad Pitt just can’t replace the experience of seeing those celebrities in person.
“There’s still nothing yet that quite approaches being in the presence of the thing itself,” Rodley says.
Even if the thing itself isn’t necessarily real.
More figures from the Dreamland Wax Museum:
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