Interpreting Tourism Spaces And Cultures Cultural Studies Essay

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Visits to USHMM can be considered a form of dark tourism (DT) that Foley and Lennon (1996:198) first coined as "the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites". This phenomenon is not new and has a long history stretching back to the Middle Ages (Seaton 1996). While the USHMM is a DT site, it can simultaneously be a heritage site for it documented the Holocaust, as well as representing a form of memorial for people who are related to the event.

Visitors to such sites have often been termed as "heritage tourists", but Poria, Butler and Airey (2003:247) have argued for a clearer distinction between "heritage tourists" and "tourists in heritage places", suggesting that heritage tourism should only be referring to "a sub-group, in which the main motivation for visiting is based on the characteristics of the place according to the tourists' perception of their own heritage"

This need for greater distinction is particularly relevant in light of the increasing trend of tourists who are engaged in heritage sites that Poria, Butler and Airey (2003) had classified as Group 1,2 and 3 (see figure 1.)

Source: Poria, Butler and Airey (2003)

Such a classification is similarly useful in the case of dark tourism (dark tourists V.S. tourists in dark sites) and the USHMM in particular. According to the USHMM, non-Jews make up approximately 90% of visitors and only about 12% of visitors are international visitors. This means that the bulk of visitors are non-Jewish Americans (domestic tourists), and can be considered to fall under the groups 1,2, or 3, who may have no knowledge of the Holocaust, know about it but are visiting USHMM for other reasons or do not consider it as part of their heritage.

In addition to having no links with the Holocaust that occurred decades ago, majority of the tourists are learning about an event that occurred in Europe in United States (U.S.). This means that they can be said to be temporally and spatially distanced from the Holocaust. Does this double-distancing to the Holocaust dilute the meaning of the event for these people? Can they relate to the event as OUTSIDERS in an OUTSIDE space? This paper seeks to answer these questions by looking at the relations between the museum spaces and tourists. More specifically, I first argue that museum spaces and presentations are specifically manipulated and engineered in particular ways to evoke intense feelings within tourists, influencing their experiences in the museum. The carefully managed spaces and presentations thus helps bridge the spatial and temporal gap between tourists and events, helping them to relate to the event. Secondly, such manipulation is underlain by a political reason to reinforce a particular narrative of the U.S. national identity.

Literature Review

In researching representations of people, places and events by institutions in DT, central to this are questions of authenticity; revolving around the problems of front and back settings (Wilson 2004).

On the other hand, shifting focus from the institutions to tourists, research has revolved around tourists' motivations for engaging in DT (Preece and Price 2005; Rittichainuwat 2008), and how DT sites may often have different meanings for different people and are interpreted differently (Slade 2003; Cooper 2006). With differing interpretations of DT sites, there is thus a need for a reconceptualization of what it means by DT; it is multi-hued (Strange and Kempa 2003) with shades of grey (Ryan and Kohli 2006).

Studies on DT with regards to interpretation have thus tended to focus upon the representations by instituitions and how the selective representations affect tourists' understandings; other the other hand, it has been showed that tourists often have alternative interpretations. Such research centering upon tourists and their experiences has continually been the focus as highlighted by Ballantyne, Packer and Axelsen (2009) after an analysis of twelve major tourism journals. However, this focus upon the object (representations) and subject (tourists) means that the medium in which these interactions occur has largely been ignored. It is necessary to consider the role of space in influencing tourists experiences because the interaction between the object and the subject has to take place in space.

Researchers have in recent times adopted new approaches to broaden the study of tourism. Edensor (2009:308) highlighted one of the new approaches as the growing interest in

"…phenomenology, the body and embodiment…Tourism bluntly is not sorely concerned with the cognitive understanding of places and with the consumption of representations…bodies are always already involved with the world in precognitive fashion, constantly attuning to new environments, sensing stimuli, and acting in unreflexive ways towards the world. We apprehend the world in ways that accord with the qualities of place and the capacities of our bodies which go way beyond the semiotic decoding enacted by a solitary, gazing tourist…What becomes important to explore then, is the relationship between bodies and tourist space" (emphasis added)

This focus on embodiment is important because the body is a site from which we interact with the environment, and that all bodies are necessarily situated in space. Space therefore has the ability to influence bodies and how we make sense of the environment. Put in the context of the dark tourism with regards to museum visitations, museum spaces can therefore influence the relationship between the object and the subject.

Designers' intentions

Just as the state use their powers to use public space to erect grand buildings that seek to inspire, create awe and reflect their might, this can take place on a more micro-scale in the spaces of the museum. There was a conscious effort in designing the USHMM to make it a sensual museum whereby people

"…experience the Museum building "viscerally." … Its architecture of sensibility is intended to engage the visitor and stir the emotions, allow for horror and sadness, ultimately to disturb. As Freed [2] says, 'It must take you in its grip.' " - (USHMM, 2010 [emphasis added])

This was the reason why the construction was described as "engineering a monument, evoking a nightmare" by engineers involved (Argiris, Namdar and Adams, 1992). In designing the museum, Freed designed the USHMM to deal directly with the personal and emotions because he does not

"…believe that you could ever understand the Holocaust with the mind. You have to feel it. Feeling may be a better way of getting at it because horror is not an intellectual category as far as I can tell." Freed (1989:65)

To achieve such an experiential museum, the design and structure of the museum is important for it creates a framework of the visitors' experiences (Davis 1995), as well as providing a link between the past and present (Sirefman 1999). In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it provides a bridge to close the gap between distant tourists/visitors and the Holocaust by evoking intense feelings.

Such an experiential museum is an example of a postmodern museum, whereby there is a reconceptualizing of the museum/audience relationship. Museums now need to achieve greater competence in engaging the audience and delivering powerful experiences (Skramstad 1999). Just as DT is an imitation of postmodernity (Lennon and Foley 1999; Muzaini, Teo and Yeoh 2007), museums like the USHMM seek to capture this essence by moving away from the modern museum. Figure 1 shows the brief differences between the modern and postmodern museum.

Figure 1: Comparison between modern and postmodern museums

Modern Museum

Postmodern Museum

Presentation style

Didactic - focus on teaching


How it interacts with visitors

Transmitted factual information

Involve emotions and imagination

Visitors seen as…

Passive: Deficient, lack knowledge, receivers, empty vessels to be filled; isolated and detached from real world

Active: subjective understandings, embodied being,


Objectivity, rationality, order and distance

Responsiveness, mutually nurturing partnerships, celebrating diversity

Source: Author's own, adapted from Hooper-Greenhill (2000)

The postmodern museum is different in the way in which it interacts with the visitors by changing its pedagogic style, which Hooper-Greenhill (2000:5) defined as the

"…style of communication in displays, which includes the way the objects are used or placed, the way the text is written, the provision within the exhibition for various forms of sensory engagement (including visual, tactile, auditory senses), use of light and color, use of space…"

It is important to analyse these museum techniques because they affect visitor experience and thus interpretations of the exhibitions in the museums. This means we not only have to look at WHAT is said and presented and HOW it is said as it affects tourists corporeally.

Emotional Geographies - Affect

The focus upon experiences and thus the body as a site of experiences is important for understanding our emotions which serve as a "connective tissue that links experiential geographies of the human psyche and physique with(in) broader social geographies of place" (Davidson and Milligan 2004: 524). This focus on emotions has it roots in humanistic and feminist geographies, and more recently in non-representational geographies (Bondi 2005; Pile 2009) has been termed the 'emotional' turn. Emotional geographies thus recognize the interactional quality in human experiences between us and the environment. For example, Valentine's work (1989) on the geographies of women's fears is one of the earliest works that linked emotions and space by showing how fear of male violence and assault affected their perceptions and use of space. This does not however mean that emotions and space are related unilaterally, as spaces can similarly affect emotions. In extending understandings of emotions, geography have focused upon the psychoanalytic understanding of 'affect' which is "encountered prior to any subjective framing and are rendered more in terms of felt intensity which produces a kind of understanding before it can be signified and articulated" (Dewsbury 2009:21).

Understanding 'affect' is increasingly important because they are induced prior to cognition and are increasingly carefully manipulated by different agents. Wood and Smith (2004) showed how emotions are affected through musical performaces and argued that it is necessary to consider the consequences of this emotional dimension to life. Similarly, Carter and McCormack (2006) argued for the expanded understanding of relations between cinematic films and geopolitical intervention, by looking at the magnification and anchoring of affect through cinematic techniques. As we have seen earlier, the USHMM was conceptualized specifically to evoke emotions and 'affect'. In the next section, we will look at the ways in which this is achieved through spatial techniques.

Evoking emotions- Simulating directed and hurried journey

A typical tour of the museum will cover the permanent exhibits that consist of three floors: the Nazi Assault 1933-39, the Final Solution 1940-45, and the Last Chapter. Landsberg (1997) argued how structural differences of the USHMM were a shift towards a "radical politics of empathy" as traditional methods of the use of museum spaces are ruptured. While tourists are often left on their own to begin at various points in most museums, the USHMM subverts such flexibility by forcing them along a particular route. Upon entrance, visitors' movements are dictated and directed by the museum as the tourists are taken to the top level of the building to work their way down. According to the designer of the permanent exhibits Ralph Apperlbaum (cited in Cole 1999:161)

"…we realized that if we followed those people under all that pressure as they moved from their normal lives into ghettos, out of ghettos onto trains, from trains to camps, within the pathways of the camps, until finally to the end…if visitors could take that same journey, they would understand the story because they will have experienced the story"

This guidance of visitors' path forces each visitor to confront images and objects that might otherwise be skipped if left to visitors' own discretion. More importantly, this ensures that the pedagogic style used by museum designers make sense and allow for coherent and structured experiences for the tourists.

Sociologist Lagerwey (1998:48) spoke of her experience through the USHMM,

"…a guard at the beginning of the exhibit announces that there are over nine hours of videotape in the permanent exhibit, and the museum is only open seven hours. I feel rushed and afraid. I imagine myself as part of an anonymous mass being herded into elevators and through exhibitions"

Her comment highlights also how tourists feel a sense of pressure with more than three storeys of exhibitions, 5000 artefacts and nine hours of footage. This knowledge of the overwhelming amount of materials in the museum to cover thus gives them pressure to try to complete their tour quickly. With only five places in the permanent exhibits (three storeys) whereby visitors can actually sit and rest. The journey through the museum is thus emotionally and physically exhausting, simulating the experiences of the victims.

Evoking emotions- Small restrictive spaces

Another way in which traditional uses of museum spaces are ruptured can be seen in the ways how spaces are made to be narrow and restrictive as Freed (1989:71) highlighted,

"From the third floor you come down an-other way, under a slot of light. This is the "death march," where the experience becomes more brutal; the stairs are steel, the slot is very narrow, movement is very constricted."

In addition, while most artifacts/objects tend to be gazed at, usually at a distance, tourists are at one point brought "into" the artifacts. Landsberg highlighted her own experience of passing through a box-car (photograph 2) that was commonly used to transport Jews to concentration camps as a radical eradication of the dichotomy between visitors' space and the museum object space. In this instance, visitors and museum objects are no longer separated by glass panels, barriers and are instead transported and given the opportunity to experience what victims of the Holocaust went through. Journalist Philip Gourevitch gave an account of his unsettling experience through the box-car,

"It was small and dark inside. I felt like a trespasser, someone engaged in an unwholesome experience, the way I might feel if I were asked to lie in someone else's coffin." (cited in Landsberg 1997:76)

Photograph 2: View of the photo mural of a selection at Auschwitz-Birkenau taken through the open railcar on the third floor of the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Source: USHMM archives

Implications on tourists

On the travel blog Igougo, tourist 'stvchin' commented,

"The Museum is a very powerful experience that evokes a bunch of different emotions, from horror to sadness, to anger that people could allow such things to happen"

Such is the intensity that travelers like 'Jim' and 'Mafnet' had advised other potential travelers that the trip to USHMM is not for the faint-hearted. 'Vampirefan' shared her experience,

"It is hard enough for an adult to digest this…I didn't make it without crying…One of the last things you will see is a freight cart that was used to take people to the camps. Upon entering, you get an idea of the hopelessness that people went through once they were onboard. If you have asthma or allergies to mold or mildew, you might want to pass on this. I have both and had an asthma attack."

The intensity of emotions and affect felt by tourists mean that the museum spaces are transferential spaces whereby "people are invited to enter into experiential relationships with events through which they themselves did not live" (Landsberg 1997:66). Visitors thus feel an odd sense of spatial intimacy with the victims who were previously at an unbridgeable distance and gain knowledge[s] that would otherwise have been difficult to grasp cognitively. Such techniques then blur the distinction between the real event and the museum experience by "transporting" them back into time and space. The experience thus becomes the event for the tourists whereby the differences between the represented (Holocaust) and the representations of the Holocaust are eradicated, creating a "simulacra - a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (Baudrillard, cited in Lisus and Ericson 1995:14 )

The careful manipulation to induce emotions and affect is thus important in dark tourism and visits to dark sites. This is because there is a need for distinction between "dark" and "darker" tourism as there is a difference between sites associated with death and disaster and sites of death and disaster (Miles 2002). Put in context of the Holocaust, the former would represent the numerous Holocaust museums and memorials located OUTSIDE of Europe where the event occurred. The latter would refer to museums or sites in Europe where the actual atrocities took place. Examples of "darker" tourism sites include Auschwitz in Poland, where many people were gassed and died, and Dachau concentration camp in Germany. While tourists to both sites would be temporally distanced from the Holocaust, Miles argued that "dark" tourism sites lack "locational authenticity". The USHMM thus seeks to overcome its problem of "locational authenticity" through its engineering of emotions and affect.

Politics of Affect: Americanization of Holocaust

While tourists can have agency (and power) to interpret museum exhibits, the manipulation of emotions and affect by USHMM to influence tourists experiences and thus interpretations represents a shift of power back to the museum operators, and even the state because 60% of the museum's budget is funded by the state (The American Enterprise 2001). Thrift (2004) thus argued for greater attention to the ways in which affect is engineered because it expands what constitutes political. The USHMM is part of the "Americanization" of the Holocaust (Novick 2000), whereby the U.S. is seen as 'liberators'. The director of public information commented that

"…the whole story…it's pretty Americanized in that it opens with an American at liberation, liberating one of the camps…and we end up in the end with the liberation and the survivors coming to our country." (Eskenazi, cited in Lennon and Foley 1999:49)

A tourist commented that the whole experience

'…left me feeling strangely comforted and surprisingly proud…comfort and pride are no part of what one feels upon leaving the remains of the Nazi camps in Germany or Poland or upon concluding a visit to Yad Vashem in Israel' (cited in Cole 1999:158)

Commenting on the liberation mural (see photograph???) they see when they shuffled out of the life, Cole (1999:152) found themselves

"…standing this side of the pyre. It is as though we form a ring around this pile of half-burnt corpses. We join the 'liberators' and so become like them…"

Photograph 3: Example of visitors viewing the liberation mural on the fourth floor of the permanent exhibition in the USHMM

Source: USHMM photo archive

Thus, as the evocative museum helps tourists relate to the event by experiencing the hyperreal, it simultaneously aids and reinforces the state's framed narrative of itself as liberators of the Holocaust and can be considered a form of "governance museum" that Shearing and Kempa (2004:65) described as being "concerned with promoting sensibilities rather than with simply exhibiting valued objects". Experiencing the extreme atrocities commited by 'others' thus reinforces the U.S. identity since the Holocaust is essentially portrayed as an "antithesis to all-American values" (Cole 1999:156)


In this paper, I have highlighted the ways in which spaces of the museum are manipulated to evoke intense feelings and affect in tourists, which I argue helps the tourists to relate to the Holocaust as an outsider, and in a site lacking in locational authenticity. There is also a need to recognize the state involvement in this manipulation to appropriate the event to reinforce own narrative and identity. Primary qualitative fieldwork can be conducted to further understandings of the effects of manipulation on tourists, or even to discover new findings. While this paper has focused specifically on spatial techniques, other mediums of manipulation include the use of audio, video and photographs. Issues of authenticity can be explored as well to see if they affect the intensity of emotions and affect evoked.

Drawing upon recent developments of focus on the corporeal and emotions, this paper aims to add to dark tourism research by examining the links and interaction between the tourist and the tourist space of the museum. Selective representations of events are important in influencing tourists' understandings, and so are the tourists' agencies to formulate their own alternative interpretations. However, the space and medium in which the tourists and the exhibits interact is similarly important and possess the ability to influence interpretations, and if manipulated, represents a shift of power back to the state.