The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dark Tourism: reflections on the Wall

Earlier this month, Anna W and I took a very brief trip to Berlin, to stay with Anna Ch and her family. While we had a great time, for me a sense of unease hung over the trip. Inevitably, many of the sites we visited pertained to the recent history of Berlin, the wall, the war and the Holocaust.

On the way to the epicentre of preunification Berlin, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, Anna W and I mused upon the ethics of what we were doing. As students of museum studies we are aware, perhaps more than most, of the phenomenon of 'dark tourism,' a term coined by Foley and Lennon (2000) to describe the process - to give a very simple explanation - of visiting places associated with with death and destruction (it's more complex that that - predicated by the post-modern condition, global communications, commodification etc., but that's the general gist of it). Yet, we had to admit that we were still inexorably drawn to these places.

I guess I have a fairly legitimate excuse (if one is necessary). I am a member of the last generation to reach my teenage years under the spectre of the Cold War and have a clear memory of the lead-up to, and collapse of the Berlin Wall. I watched the events unfold live on television, and I can say with total certainty that those events (along with the Tian'anmen Square 'incident') led me to my current research. My academic interest thus absolves me of the dubious moniker 'dark tourist,' doesn't it?






A particularly troubling aspect for both Anna W and I was the question of whether it was ethical, even amoral, to take photographs of the remains of the Berlin Wall. We decided that we would (and did, as the photographs above testify). But we would not, as many tourists do, pose in front of it. This seemed like a good solution. We could satisfy our curiosity within the bounds of academic detachment and objectivity.

I cannot deny that I adore communist kitsch. I am fully aware of how this contradicts with what I've written above. I was keen to, as I put it to Anna Ch, 'get me some ostalgie.' Yet, when I did get there, the commodification of Berlin's troubled past repelled; it was largely exploitative and inappropriate. As a case in point I wish I had taken a photograph of the 'I love Checkpoint Charlie' merchandise in the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie which, incidentally, was in dire need of an interpretive revamp, in limbo between its pre and post-reunification existence (I may write more on this later), although its two shops were contemporary and consumer-aware. I was left unsure and unsettled, questioning my own academic and personal motivations.


Ultimately, after all this soul-searching, I gave in. I did take a photograph of the 'Two Annas' at the East Side Gallery. But I captured them mid-conversation, standing alongside the wall, not posing and smiling for the camera. We were there, but we were self-aware.

8 comments:

J said...

I think we all have these moments when we start questioning the ethical boundaries of our research when it coincides with our everyday life. As a dress historian, I deplore the custom of desecrating antique books to get the hand-coloured illustrations out. As a costume geek and collector, I love seeing them and having them. Saying, "it's been done already" isn't really a good enough excuse.

I love the term "dark tourist." It's the first I've heard of it, but it describes so well what we do a lot of these days. I've never been to Germany, other than flying through Frankfurt airport (doesn't really count), but with my ethnic background, I don't know how I would react to it - truth be told, I find Communist merchandise off-putting, but then, I lived through the last gasp of Communism, before the collapse of the USSR. I wonder, though, how people who do not have the background you or I do, see those sites? Is the proliferation of silly merchandise cheapening the experience, too?

A final thought: I believe the act of posing next to a monument is a form of visual colonialization. It is one way of personally overcoming the overarching sorrow of such sites, and also mapping them onto one's personal geography. Certainly there are other ways of doing so, but since photographic visuality is so powerful in our perceptions of the world, it is the most common method by which we interpret what we see.

Amy said...

You're so right about photography and colonisation. The same applies, I think, to the posession of so-called communist kitsch and ostalgie, at least in the West.

This is altogether a very interesting subject, that cropped up again during the museum crawl to London yesterday. Which reminds me: keep your eyes peeled for something rather special coming to The Attic soon. :D

J said...

Is it a crocodile on a ceiling? Is it? Is it?
;-)

PS said...

Some interesting points raised... for additional comments and learning resources about 'the darker side of travel', check out The Dark Tourism Forum at www.dark-tourism.org.uk

Amy said...

'Fraid not Julia, but nearly as exciting!!! ;)

Amy said...

Great - thanks for the link. I shall be joining the discussion group shortly!

Kostas said...

Hi Amy, great post (the last sentence is brilliant; will become a classic).

I think the whole issue about the remains of the wall is a really interesting one: there are remains of the wall in situ, a large piece in the Deutsches Historisches Museum and small fragments sold for a couple of Euros in the shop of the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. All parts of the same 'object', yet all valued and perceived in different contexts and ways.

(I am embarrassed to say that I did buy one of the small pieces of the wall...)

Amy said...

Assuming it *is* part of the wall, rather than just a wall that happened to be in Berlin. ;) Gosh, I'm cynical!