Uncomfortable Heritage and Dark Tourism

Uncomfortable Heritage and Dark Tourism Study Project WS 08-09
Prof. Dr. Leo Schmidt and Samuel Merrill

Between October 2008 and March 2009 the Department of Architectural at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus, hosted a study project entitled “Dark Tourism and Uncomfortable Heritage”. It aimed to build on the recent development of the sub-discipline of Dark Tourism Studies and extend the growing and current emphasis of uncomfortable, difficult or sensitive heritage sites within the discipline of Heritage Studies. In recognising the shared characteristics of both disciplines’ research foci, namely the locations which act as both dark tourism attractions and sites of uncomfortable heritage, the project hoped to foster understandings which reconciled the economic concerns of one discipline with the traditionally conservational and educational concerns of the other. During the course of the study project around 25 participants contributed from numerous national backgrounds. Lively debate followed with student presentations and excursions fueling discussion. Emphasis was placed on innovative approaches to the subject matter and the discussion of a breadth of geographical and chronological contexts was encouraged in order to highlight key themes and issues. As such the study project’s description and departure point read:

The memorialisation and remembrance of death, pain and suffering is not a new phenomenon. The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt memorialises an individual’s death and arguably incorporates intangible aspects of the suffering of many more, Trajan’s Column in Rome commemorates Roman military victories against the Dacians and the Templo Mayor of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in Mexico is synonymous with the mass human sacrifice that took place there. However, the sensitivity of these sites is reduced by their temporal isolation from those who visit them as tourists today. The same cannot be said for more recent sites of death, pain and suffering, which still encompass public memory and consciousness, and are more regularly being recognised as heritage sites and, furthermore, as attractions in the growing field of ‘Dark Tourism’. The growth of ‘Dark Tourism’ has lead to ‘Uncomfortable Heritage Sites’, such as Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland, Robben Island in South Africa and The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan, to attract more and more visitors with a range of motives and expectations. Therefore, the knowledge of how to manage these sites in a sensitive manner with an understanding of the complex ethical, theoretical and practical processes that affect each of them is paramount for any potential heritage professional.

The study project resulted in over forty separate research papers of which 24 are included in this reader. The papers were subdivided into those which highlighted specific case studies along with their characteristics as dark tourism attractions and uncomfortable heritage sites and those which revealed wider cross cutting themes related to the subject matter as a whole. This reader is divided in the same manner accordingly.

Part One: Case Studies Sites, Memorials and Exhibitions, includes twelve research papers which consider various examples of dark tourism attractions and uncomfortable heritage sites across their diversity. These range from the more often cited examples of Alcatraz (A. Prodran), Chernobyl (JR. Perez) and the Berlin Jewish Memorial (C. Rellensmann) to those more implicit relevance, such as a former Nazi KdF (Kraft durch Freude/ Strength through Joy) seaside resort (H. Pinkepank), a Cold War Berlin field station (F. Hansell), the African Quarter of Berlin (H. Hack), or the London Underground (S. Merrill). The scale of sites considered is also diverse and is reflected by papers which investigate: single memorial sites such as the Valley of the Fallen in Spain (R. Príncep Martínez); memorial landscapes like those which refer to the GDR (A. Merbach), serial sites, such as the Torgau prison sites (J. Linke); and defence systems such as the Atlantic Wall (L. Rellensmann) which cross national borders. In terms of chronological breadth the published papers focus primarily on the recent past but discussion during the study project sessions also encompassed that of the more distant past and also the present. The later is reflected by consideration of Guben Plastinarium (S. Dicks).

Part Two: Themes Mediation, Politics and Ethics, provides a further twelve papers which build on the comprehension of the case studies and introduce wider crosscutting issues and themes. The first few papers consider how uncomfortable heritage sites and dark tourist attractions should be negotiated. Various approaches are taken from those which emphasise the need for clear typologies and understandings of determining factors (S. Merrill) to those which highlight the multiplicity and insueing dissonance of uncomfortable heritage (J. Linke). The importance of modern media marketing strategies is noted (F. Johnigk) and the potential for the continued contemporary use of sites is reflected upon (L. Rellensmann). Unsurprisingly much consideration was given to the political dimension of uncomfortable heritage and dark tourism with in turn an emphasis on the need to come to terms with and understand uncomfortable pasts. This is reflected by papers which focus of Germany’s Third Reich (H. Pinkepank and F. Hansell) and GDR (H. Hack and A. Merbach) periods of history, as well as that which deals with the Spanish Civil War and Dictatorship (R. Príncep Martínez). Political and ethical concerns are bridged by a comprehension of ‘Walls’ and all there consequences (P. Posada) before some practical ethical concerns are grappled with (S. Dicks). The reader concludes with a more philosophical reflection on the relationship of uncomfortable heritage and forgiveness (JR. Perez).

It is hoped that these papers will provide students and academics alike with a useful and diverse range of examples and key issues to bear in mind when approaching uncomfortable heritage sites and the visitors they attract.