25 February 2010

Grief Tourism in a Theme Park World

It's been interesting to read the comments on my story on the San Francisco Chronicle's web site. Several people have scolded me for being cynical and said that I must be really ignorant of history if I thought the Anne Frank House was "a tourist trap."

So let me be clear: I'm a cynic, not a moron. My initial cynicism, before I entered the house, was not due to ignorance of history but to knowledge of tourism--and the ways in which camera-toting hordes can make even the most somber site feel like Disneyland.  Serious subject matter does not always make for serious visitors, and even if everyone is properly sober and thoughtful, the sheer size of the crowds does rather alter the mood.

In a great essay a couple of years ago on World Hum, Frank Bures noted that "dark tourism"--also known as "grief tourism"--is gaining popularity precisely because it is often feels so different from the cheerier, landmark-ier travel experiences to which we're accustomed:
... Dark Tourism also raises questions about Planet Theme Park and packaged, bundled, marketed and scripted entertainment experiences. I can’t help but think that the allure of the dark side is in part a backlash to the aggressive theming and constructing of the travel experience, which unfolds as others have determined it to unfold, where we feel things we’ve been told we’ll feel, and where our travels are not, on some fundamental level, our own. Because sometimes we want more than that. We travel exactly because we want to see and feel things for ourselves. We want to write the script to our own story, not just read someone else’s.
My fear with the Anne Frank House, though, was that it would be yet another stop on Planet Theme Park, or at least that my fellow travelers would view it as such--a place to visit not out of any sense of moral or historic obligation, not because of a duty to remember the past (and even to attempt the impossible task of beginning to make some sense of it), but because they saw it listed in a magazine article once, or in one of those books with titles like 1,000 Things You Absolutely Positively Must Do Before You Die, Unless You're a Total Loser.

I know that this is something that such sites grapple with, actually: How do we provide enough amenities and interesting interpretive exhibits to tell the story and keep people coming ... without opening ourselves up to the accusation of cheapening the historic importance, commodifying tragedy?

Journalist/blogger Darren Garnick e-mailed me a link to his story about visiting Auschwitz, which addresses this very subject. It's a fascinating, thoughtful piece:

As custodian of the camps, the Polish government is often in a no-win situation. If it promotes the camps too much, it will be accused of exploitation. If it stays too low-key, it could be accused of ignoring the Holocaust. According to Young, the most positive change was when the post-Communist government stopped renting out the camps as sets for movies and TV programs.
In 1989, the American producers of “Triumph of the Spirit” (a movie about a Greek-Jewish boxer forced to fight fellow inmates for Nazi entertainment) left papier-mache gas chambers propped up at Birkenau directly over the dynamited ruins left by the Germans. Says Young: “The last thing I’d want is to see a Holocaust denier show up and see a fake gas chamber.”
Finding that middle road is a pretty impossible task, though. I think a certain amount of effort has to be put into the presentation of a site--particularly one as large and horrifying as a concentration camp--for the simple reason that it's so difficult for us tourists to wrap our minds around the awful things that happened there. We need some guidance, some background information, to help us make sense of it all.  We need to know both the broad context and the specific stories for history to come alive.  We need some amount of exhibits or audio guides or other elements beyond the historic artifacts and structures (etc.) themselves. But adding those elements can sometimes overwhelm the authentic, elemental nature of the place. It becomes a museum, not a real place where real--and awful--things happened.

And that, in the end, is what's so effective about the Anne Frank House. Most of us already know the story, the context. The museum section on the lower levels of the house provides further background about both the historical moment and the Frank family in particular. But when you enter the hiding space, there are no whiz-bang distractions. It's starkly real. And the reality of it hits you like a tidal wave.

One last note: Lee and I also visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which Lee recently wrote about on his blog (my emphasis below):
Of all the depressing things in that camp, one of the few I could comprehend was this, a semi-circular track made of different surfaces ... which the Nazis made prisoners walk on all day to test shoe materials. I can’t really imagine a concentration camp, but I can imagine walking all day over a shitty track. The Nazis were assholes.


  1. Despite my inability to grasp the full experience of a concentration camp (an inability I'm not ashamed of), the curators at Sachsenhausen did a good job of striking a balance between giving information and letting the terrible reality stand unadorned.

  2. Your review is excellent & I think it can help people determine whether or not they want to visit Anne Frank's house. I have quoted you and posted a link to this post on my page about our visit to Anne Frank's house.


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