Wednesday, September 03, 2014

DARK TOURISM – Intro and Part 1 – A Paler Shade of Grey

Visiting places of trauma has been dubbed DARK TOURISM – So what is it and why are so many people compelled to visit places of extreme trauma? As the subject is extensive, I have divided my blog post into 3 parts.

Part 1 - The Paler Shade of Grey of DARK TOURISM – considers popular sites in Italy (the Colosseum and Pompeii) that are visited without stirring much emotion.
Part 2 - The Darker Side – Rwanda and Cambodia, places where poignant reminders of fairly recent genocide cannot fail to affect the visitor.
Part 3 - considers the various aspects of Tasmania’s trauma sites both past and recent. This is significant to me, as I have chosen to live in Tasmania, and because I plan to write a book using one of these convict settings.

Note: The most popular DARK TOURISM sites today are the World War 2 Concentrations Camps in Germany. I have not included these in my post.

The reasons to conserve places of trauma vary considerably. They are wrapped in controversy and the decision to conserve and admit tourists is not always popular. Trauma sites include mass graves, places of incarceration, concentration camps, sites of assassination and genocide. The traumatic events may have occurred in the distant past or within the past decades, and the degree of visitor discomfort associated with the sites can change over time. Spatial and temporal differences are marked and both affect the way we view and experience such places.

Though some argue that it is preferable to ignore sites of suffering, the memories or evidence of such events are indelibly printed in history and need to be acknowledged. The reasons individuals visit places associated with death and suffering also vary and range from pilgrimages of personal grieving to morbid curiosity.

It has been suggested that visits to places of trauma are ‘usually undertaken in the name of social justice and historical awareness’ and that tourist wish to learn more about violence in the hope of preventing future atrocities.

Of the popular Dark Tourism destinations, Rwanda is one country still confronting the challenge of conservation and tourism. Here political tensions still exist and many people still live in fear of reprisals. For those the pain of grieving is still acute and the idea of conserving evidence of past trauma is sickening.

Likewise, Cambodia, having conserved evidence of its ‘Killing Fields’ atrocities, has recently opened its door to tourism on its dark secrets. For the generation who survived the brutality, preservation of such places of suffering provides the opportunity for Cambodians to grieve openly, which they were never permitted previously.
Places of recent traumatic events are more intense on the spectrum of Dark Tourism, but as the cumulative memory heals over time, the darkness slowly pales towards the light.

Australia’s dark colonial history is entrenched in its penal settlements and being a nation, which grew and flourished from its convict roots, many descendants wish to re-connect with their heritage through visiting conserved sites. Fifty years ago such sites were seen as less savoury places to endorse.

The conservation and presentation of places of trauma may be seen as a political expression of acknowledgement or, in the case of third-world countries, a means of making money.

Consider, then, the spectrum of Dark Tourism from light to dark.

Part 1 - Italy’s past trauma - a Lighter shade of Pale.

At the lightest end of the trauma spectrum are sites such as the Roman Colosseum, where gladiators fought to the death to entertainment the populace. On one occasion 10,000 gladiators appeared before 50,000 spectators. Yet the Roman Colosseum has been conserved not as a place of trauma but as the largest Roman amphitheatre ever built. Today the arena rings with the chords of mobile phones - not the cries of the spectators baying for blood. Visitors to the site appear oblivious to this site’s traumatic history.

Likewise, Pompeii, having slid to the end of the darkness scale presents a similar detached image of trauma. The city is conserved for its heritage value, and tourists visit this site as part of the Grand Tour of Italy seeming unconcerned that in 79 AD thousands died – suffocated and burned alive in the choking ash as a result of a cataclysmic volcanic explosion.

Images of death are starkly evident in the plaster casts of the victims but these are largely ignored by passing tourists. Today’s visitors are more interested in the structural layout of the city than the history of human suffering, probably because destruction of Pompeii is so long ago that the cumulative memory has wiped the thanos from this traumatic event. Ironically, and without realizing it, many photos of the site include the brooding silhouette of Vesuvius, the killer volcano, in the background.

Even the Italian curators show little respect for its death toll. Casts of ‘bodies’ are seen shelved, like clay pots, while one victim, sitting with his head in his hands appears, in my view, to be tired of waiting to be noticed . Is it because this event was a natural catastrophe – an Act of God – and was not perpetrated by the hand of man? Or it is purely the passage of time which has made the response to trauma pale into insignificance?

One writer suggests that visiting places of trauma ‘gives meaning to history in a subjective, embodied and reflexive way’. But in effect, tourists only receive what is presented to them which at times may appear inappropriate and may not tell the full story. Because of our familiarity with death through the media, some tourists may be disappointed with visiting trauma sites as they ‘lack the immediacy of death [with] its sounds and smells’.

Coming next: – Part 2 - The Dark Side – Rwanda and Cambodia.
This paper was the result of a short research project. References supplied if required.

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