There are many different museums around the world. From museums about pencils to museums dedicated to the history of cowgirls, there really is a museum for every taste.
However, despite this wide range of topics, you rarely find museums about economics.
That isn’t to say that people haven’t tried. Take Enterprise Square in Oklahoma City for example.
It tried to make free-market capitalism appeal to children and ended up as a surreal failure.
The idea was started by Robert Rowland (who was the director of the American Citizenship Center) and his fellows at the Oklahoma Christian University.
Rowland thought that children were failing to understand the importance of free enterprise because it was not being taught in a fun and interesting way.
In an attempt to remedy this, he set up the Enterprise Square non-profit and embarked on a 5-year research project.
This project focused on trying to learn how to make free-market economics interesting and entertaining. As part of this project, the group approached Wilson Martin (a former Disney World designer) and exhibition designer Rod Lopez-Fabrega. They hoped that the pair could create something that would be truly special.
Over the next five years, Enterprise Square was constructed on the Oklahoma Christian University campus. The museum covered 60,000 square feet and ended up costing $15 million.
The museum opened on the 20th of November 1982. The opening was a big event, the highlight of which was the reading of a special statement sent by Ronald Regan.
However, this grand opening was tinged with bitter irony. Oklahoma City had changed a lot in the five years it took to build the museum.
The city was in the middle of an economic boom when construction started. However, that boom ended in July of 1982 when Oklahoma City’s banking sector collapsed, sending the city spiraling into a deep recession.
People were lined up outside of banks in the hopes of getting their money out before it vanished. This run caused issues for banks all over the USA. The federal government had to bail out the city to prevent this crash from spreading.
Oklahoma City was full of repossessed buildings and failing businesses. The people who lived there had seen most of their assets go up in smoke.
Opening a museum praising the free market in this environment was misguided at best and utterly idiotic at worst.
But what was the museum actually like to visit?
Once guests had brought their $4 ticket (the equivalent of $10.63 in modern money) they were greeted by a giant statue of a bald eagle entitled ″A Symbol of Freedom.″
Visitors then got to watch a video featuring Bob Hope. Except, mid-way through the video, a spaceship crashed into the room!
Two aliens called Bubbin and Zazzie emerged from the crashed ship with their robot buddy Quonk not far behind. These three creatures were animatronic puppets and they acted as the framing device for the whole experience.
See, Bubbin, Zazzie, and Quonk had run out of fuel for their space ship (something they called gleply) and had to make a crash landing in Oklahoma City.
The trio decided to learn about free enterprise so that they can earn enough money to buy more gleply and get back into space.
With the plot firmly established, visitors then entered the “Heartbeat Rotunda”. In this area, guests would ride in a giant glass elevator as several screens showed various images linked to capitalism, all while disembodied voices shouted random phrases including “spend, spend spend!”
Following this sensory assault was the “Hall Of Statistics” a room that tried to convey the sheer size of capitalism. This gallery featured signs that kept running totals of objects produced and consumed in the USA.
Interestingly, one of these signs kept count of how many hot dogs had been eaten, presumably because one of the researchers heard that children like hotdogs.
The next gallery was clumsily titled “Free To Be What You Want Under Our System”. In an attempt at interactivity, the room featured several short movies about various careers. Children could insert themselves into these movies via the medium of closed-circuit cameras.
After this strange experience visitors arrived in “The Hall of Giants”. This was the biggest room in Enterprise Square and it was by far the driest.
As you walked towards this exhibition you were surrounded by signs that talked about famous capitalists including John D. Rockefeller, Samuel Gompers (the president of the AFL), and oddly, the poet, Emily Dickinson.
But this was only the aperitif for what was to come. The main section of the gallery featured gigantic busts representing the giants of free-market capitalism.
Guests could walk inside these busts to find information about the person being represented. Or, in the museum’s later years, they could look at a screen mounted to the front of the bust.
However, rather than make these busts look like grand statues hewn from gold or marble. The creators of Enterprise Square instead opted to make them look like giant greyscale photographs.
This made the whole room look like a particularly brutalist nightmare in which very rich but very grey people loom over you. Judging you.
Among those represented in this terrifying display were: Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Helena Rubinstein.
Next came the “Remarkable Supply Shop For Demanding Donut Dunkers”. This interactive experience was another attempt at explaining capitalism to children.
In this room (that resembled the 4th Doctor’s Tardis for some reason), a tour guide and a robot puppet called Doc would try to explain the basics of supply and demand through the lens of selling doughnuts.
This interactive experience was more of a game show than any real lesson in business. And while it likely failed to teach kids about supply and demand it was closer to a “fun and engaging” experience than anything else at Enterprise Square.
One can only presume that the person who heard that kids like hotdogs, also heard that kids like doughnuts and presumed that the mere mention of the sweet treat would be enough to sell them on capitalism for life.
Once you had been thoroughly educated about doughnuts you walked through a pop-art gallery only to emerge in “The Great American Marketplace.”
This is the most famous exhibit in Enterprise Square. On the walls were giant bills and each of these bills contained a 3D animatronic head of the president depicted on said bill.
These heads, while okay for the time, are certainly creepy to the modern eye. They moved more like extremely stiff glove puppets than anything remotely human.
If you could tear your eyes away from the terrifying animatronics you would also see that this room included a giant cash register (which Enterprise Square touted as one of the world’s largest) and a screen.
These elements came together in a show where a disembodied voice would explain that the American system was based on freedom. At various parts of this presentation, the animatronic presidents would sing barbershop harmonies reiterating the key points.
After this celebration came a warning. The “Giant Talking Face Of Government” was the focal point of the next exhibition.
This giant, vaguely Soviet looking head had screens where its mouth, nose, eyes, brain, and ears should be.
During the presentation, these screens would show the evils of government regulation and government overreach, creating an image that felt more like a parody of a dystopian society than anything that could actually sway someone’s opinion.
After this bizarre scene, you could visit the “America’s Dream Exhibit Hall” which featured several rotating exhibits, usually sponsored by various local groups.
The final exhibition was called the “Economics Arcade”. This exhibit featured a series of interactive stations that let visitors play games that aimed to teach them about capitalist concepts.
Most of the games were about playing the stock market or running a business at various points of American history. Alas, very little is known about these games as their code was not preserved before the museum closed.
This is because most of the games were coded by students who had recently graduated from Oklahoma Christian University. Very few of whom had experience in game design or coding.
A sub-section of this area was the “Venture” game room. In this room, guests could pick one of 6 computer terminals, each one simulating a different career.
Interestingly, this room operated in pseudo-real time. Rather than picking the year you wanted to simulate, time progressed one year every six minutes. This meant, if you were unlucky, you could end up trying to survive the stock market in 1929. However, if you were able to score over 95 points you did win a free t-shirt.
In a 1982 UPI interview, Robert Rowland said that this room showed a core facet of free enterprise. That being “Some people come out winners. Some people come out broke.”
In 2014 it was revealed that there was one arcade machine left in the former Enterprise Square building. Called “Protect Your Rights,” this game was a Space Invaders clone where players had to protect their right to own property by shooting down the invaders. However, this machine was not in a functioning state and thus the code couldn’t be preserved.
Your day at Enterprise Square ended with a slide presentation that showed Bubbin, Zazzie, and Quonk buying gleply for their ship and returning to space.
Once you had endured all of this, the only thing left was to wander into the gift shop and buy a bumper sticker that read “I Love Capitalism.”
The store also advertised that you could buy copies of their arcade games on Apple 2 disks. However, these never seemed to be in stock, suggesting that they didn’t actually exist.
Enterprise Square welcomed over 600,000 visitors during its 17-year run. However, even these numbers were not enough to maintain or expand the museum.
Enterprise Square never updated or improved. Instead, it slowly decayed.
By the time it closed its doors in 2000, the attraction was something of a dinosaur. The lack of updates had left it frozen in the early 80s. A mess of technology, designs, and color palettes that had long since faded from popularity.
In a 2014 interview with the Oklahoman. Stafford North, one of the men being the project, blamed financial issues for the museum’s decay. He said that “the technology quickly became outdated and it would have been very, very expensive to replace.”
In the same article Risa Forrester, vice president of admissions and marketing at the university said that the reason Enterprise Square was never improved was that “after the Berlin Wall fell, and many former communist countries and former Soviet Union broke up, it wasn’t quite as urgent as it had been.”
However, this problem was made worse by the fact that Enterprise Square skimped on maintenance. When things broke they were not repaired or replaced. Those who visited the attraction in its last years would find a museum full of broken screens, distorted audio, and creepy frozen puppets.
The biggest loss was Bubbin, Zazzie, and Quonk. As, when they broke down, they were removed and placed at the end of the Hall Of Statistics.
They sat there, unmoving until the building closed. Without the framing device, Enterprise Square became even more confusing and disjointed.
Really, Enterprise Square’s fate shouldn’t be surprising. A museum about capitalism isn’t anyone’s first choice for a day out. Especially when the museum is as weird and unfocused as this one was.
In fact, the vast majority of Enterprise Square’s visitors were local schoolchildren who had been dragged there on field trips. The rest tended to be fans of kitsch roadside attractions, who wanted to see it because it was weird and dated.
However, this was not enough to keep the place afloat and the Oklahoma Christian University opted to close the attraction for refurbishment in 2000.
In 2002 they announced that Enterprise Square would not be reopening.
Today, Enterprise Square is mostly used for storage.
While it tried to teach kids about the wonders of capitalism, Enterprise Square didn’t heed its own lessons.
No one was demanding what it was supplying.