The Strange Art and Surprising Politics of Madame Tussauds
A Photo Essay
Some of our strangest behaviors are performed in the interest of self-preservation, a sort of primal vanity that comes out when we try to remember and be remembered.
For centuries, the West dug up the relics of ancient civilizations in foreign lands whose surviving populations were deemed Other or inferior, and organized these stolen artifacts in institutions we called “museums.” We grave-robbed nations to preserve and display their history for them.
We have also developed public rituals around remembering the past in the form of re-enactments, choreographed performances designed for members of a community to tap into a time-swept culture, place, or event. Generations of hobbyists, in full period costume, flock to the spot at which something of perceived importance took place, to ceremoniously re-stage the original course of history as they imagine it. (Late last year, I watched as hundreds of fellow history nerds marched tête-à-tête in a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, originally fought in 1099.)
But such events are reflective more of broad public imagination than historical reality, and done, in part, simply for the fun of charging at your best friend with a lance in one arm, and a hand-made rusty iron shield in the other. Predictably, merchandise booths (“ye old gift shop”) have sprung up to commercialize even the innocent act of remembering, selling wooden swords, plastic helmets, and flags of dubious historical accuracy. (Fun for the whole family!)
Madame Tussauds gets the best of both worlds, at least that’s what Miley Cyrus’s wax alter ego might tell you in a room full of pop star surrogates like Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa. The London flagship branch of what has become a global chain and tourist empire, stretching from Las Vegas to Delhi, is a 30,000-square foot shrine for both the living and dead, the historical and phantasmagorical. Visitors pay extraordinary sums (the equivalent of $38 if they book their tickets online and ahead of time) to chat with Steven Spielberg about his latest project, have their photo taken with the queen, or playfully pull at Donald Trump’s tie (the forty-fifth president would have it no other way.)
The self-prescribed museum deploys hyperrealistic wax figures and primitive sets perfumed in nostalgia to bring back heydays and Golden Ages from the past six centuries, though their lookalikes primarily date to the twentieth and twenty-first. Madame Tussauds is a memorial of sorts, one that publicly exposes and profits from twenty-first century idol worship, cults of personality, and fetishism.
It is also a politically charged space. The original Madam Tussaud (born Marie Groshlotz in 1761 Strasbourg) was the art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister, and a member of the French royal court at Versailles. She was briefly imprisoned during the French Revolution, before agreeing to make death masks of the royals who employed her services in the first place. The collection of waxes that she inherited in 1794, and transformed into a traveling public spectacle, today features an anachronistic arrangement of British royals and conservative politicians, entertainers, social revolutionaries, screen legends, and a life-size King Kong sheltered behind a screen of artificial bamboo.
I spent a day at the Madame Tussaud’s in London, amused by the ridiculous tableaux vivants (Isaac Newton stood in the company of Einstein, Van Gogh, and Charles Dickens). More interesting than the uncanny waxes themselves, however, was observing viewers’ interactions with them. The results were revelatory.
The first room brought me to an open floor exhibition space, split down the middle by a long line of visitors queuing to have their picture taken with a six-foot-five Dwayne Johnson effigy, whose sculptors, admittedly, captured the charisma of his million dollar smile and staggering gravitas to a tee. One by one, dozens of giddy tourists were photographed before a chameleon backdrop, shapeshifting every few seconds between a football field, a beach landscape, and a wrestling ring. In his trajectory from WWE darling to Hollywood’s highest paid actor, Johnson is seldom seen outside guns-a-blazin’ action, or frankly, with his shirt on. It is no wonder that his “smize” (as the youths call smiling with one’s eyes) is among the first things visitors will encounter at the museum.
A few feet away, a figure of Angelina Jolie stared off into the middle distance, as a couple of male tourists checked out her ass (alternative theory: they found something of extreme interest in her lower back tattoos. We may never know.) Both Johnson and Jolie have become icons of the entertainment industry as much for their raw talent as for their sex appeal. Their wax likenesses permit a different sort of looking (and, for the daring visitor, touching) than is possible on the silver screen, a gaze that at once exposes the visitor’s irrational attraction and admits defeat. The waxes become fetishized objects as much as shadows of the person they are meant to represent.
Other wax figures were placed in their element: these were the career-oriented members of the Tussauds community. Older visitors were visibly taken by the the swagger of a gun-slinging John Wayne in his iconic ten-gallon hat, while their grandkids sang along to the poignant breakup tunes of Taylor Swift, whose claws were out long before Cats. The most renowned entertainers of their day continue to demand the sort of idol worship they received in their lifetimes.
The fact that we have built an industry around wax replicas of ourselves is strange in and of itself. The moment in a celebrity’s life that is frozen in wax says something about our generation’s beauty standards and overall public perception of their career. But as a cultural phenomenon grounded in memory and history, Madame Tussauds reveals much about each generation of visitors that makes the pilgrimage. Observing which historical figures made it into visitors’ selfies, and which were completely looked over, exposed the limits of collective memory, and the evolving tastes in popular culture. While older visitors made no effort to identify members of One Direction (itself a dated reference at this point), Alfred Hitchcock rarely attracted the eye of a young passerby, while Audrey Hepburn’s iconic tiara, cig, and ‘do from Breakfast at Tiffany’s were less attention-grabbing than a famous mustachioed silent film star nearby.
History quickly devolves into ironic tragicomedy, as figures dramatically posed before imaginary crowds stand utterly unobserved. Legendary Indian cricket player Sachin Tendulkar stands alone before an image of a stadium pasted onto the wall, beaming at no one in particular, with two arms raised in triumph. He clearly just won a match, but has no one to share the glory with. Elvis appears to be rocking the stage to the roars of an invisible audience, but sandwiched between Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, the King didn’t stand a chance. His presence is more of an obligatory cliché, acting to prevent his complete evanescence from the throne recently assumed by Billie Eilish.
To remain relevant, Madame Tussauds has a knack for displaying controversial conservative politicians of the last two centuries. In the “World Leaders” exhibition, Winston Churchill leads a procession at 10 Downing Street consisting of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Xi Xinping. They share a floor populated by centuries of royals, and on the opposite wall, two notable outsiders.
Princess Diana stands in stark contrast to a triangle of powerful female monarchs: facing opposite, a stern Queen Victoria, the grandmother to nearly all twentieth century European monarchies; to her right, a disapproving Queen Elizabeth I; and across the aisle, Elizabeth’s living namesake feigning a curt smile.
For those who might cast the museum as politically outdated or irrelevant, let Harry and Meghan’s departure from both their actual and wax families remind you that Madame Tussauds is no stranger to the political scene. Following the couple’s announcement that they would be stepping back from royal duties, their sculpted doppelgängers followed suit, leaving a poignant and awkward hole beside Prince Charles.
And rest assured, American politics weaseled their way in as well, casting a nostalgia for an older time (2008–2016, to be precise.)
At the end of the day, while the museum enables visitors to travel back in time and re-experience history, or at least leave with a sense of it, Madame Tussauds is more spectacle than encyclopedia, more shadow than fragment — in function, it encourages a selective reading of history that prioritizes entertainment over politics, face over form (I wonder how much that little girl knew of Xi Xinping’s politics before taking his picture,) problems solved over those actively taking place outside the museum’s walls. Few lingered beside Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, while the Beatles were playing one room over.
But the real paradox of a museum that tries to bestow immortality is that it actually produces the opposite effect. It becomes a simultaneous memento mori — a reminder of mortality and death — and a vanity project, building upon the greatest fear of the rich and famous and the layperson alike: being forgotten. Sadly, the day will come when few will recognize Beyoncé’s figure or Helen Mirren’s profile. Younger visitors passing the Dalai Lama will tug on their parents’ sleeves asking, “Who’s that?” — and that’s assuming the figures will be left up in the first place. But what they’ll remember is the music. The movies. The faith. They’ll hear their grandparents reminiscing about Lemonade, and be forced to Google (assuming it’s still around) who this Paul McCartney guy is, anyway.
Perhaps Madame Tussauds is not about history at all, but a symbol of our feeble efforts to remember it. It’s about how history quickly untangles into myth, and how its greatest heroes dissolve into archaeological relics. To keep them alive, the museum seems to suggest, we must make every attempt to preserve the legacy they left on the world, even when their physical bodies are gone.
Madame Tussauds as a cultural phenomenon reminds me of a poem by Percy Shelley:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory —
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.