Last time I wrote about a common paradoxical issue that faces many historic site museums: how to present history to the public while maintaining the site from the wear that very public inflicts upon it. While the natural inclination may be to focus on the maintenance of the site as the wear builds up, that approach is a purely reactive measure. Instead I present to you readers two examples of sites that use active attempts to prevent the wear to their sites, both primarily focusing on the tourists themselves. Additionally, I want to highlight a slightly controversial trend in how the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites is perceived.
With the expectation that the wear caused by tourism will negatively affect the area, taking a preemptive approach to how tourists flow in and out of an environment can mitigate those affects before they happen. In Gulyang, China students of architecture and civil engineering used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to map out the movement and development of tourism over the past century within their hometown. By tracking the development of street patterns, buildings related to tourism, and using an algorithm tracking the literal ‘flow’ of tourist movements, GIS software can predict the most economically likely places for future development and where this development might conflict with heritage sites. If certain services such as hotels or restaurants can be used to direct tourism around particular locations rather than through them, archaeological sites and the governments that want to utilize them can help ensure their survival. Then it becomes just a matter of modifying zoning laws. Understanding the inherent morphological evolution and how space is utilized allows local governments to better plan more sustainable tourism at historic sites. While the technology is still relatively new, it provides positive benefits for historic site museum preemptive care.
Another way to involve tourists in the preemptive care of historic sites is to educate them on what their visitation actually does. By disseminating information to tourists about the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites, tourists themselves can play an active role in conservation. In Hwange National Park of Zimbabwe, tourists were given a survey about their knowledge on the safety of the animals in the preserve. Using convenience sampling, the park was able to determine that more than two thirds of visitors had knowledge of the potentially hazardous materials their visitation could expose to the animals. More importantly the survey revealed that while local visitors received their knowledge from newspaper media, and foreign visitors received their knowledge from internet sources, the biggest source of conservation knowledge was from word-of-mouth; a general awareness from their communities, family, and friends that careless tourism could negatively affect the wildlife in the park. This indicated an increased need for awareness programs instituted by the park. While a natural park reserve is not a historic site museum, care of the animals within present much the same concerns of human involvement seen at historic sites. As such, the same conclusions can be drawn about the need for awareness programs, word-of-mouth advertisement, and ensuring visitors are aware of the potentially negative effects tourism has on historic sites.
Probably the best example in recent memory of the role of public awareness plays with the preservation of historic sites is the public media’s response to an incident at Luxor Palace in Egypt. In 2013 a tourist named Ding Jinhao wrote in Chinese “Ding Jinhao was here” on the walls of Luxor Palace, scraping his message into the millennia old building. This teenager has since been eviscerated on the Chinese social media tool Weibo, an analogue of Twitter in the States. This mass social shaming extended to the governmental level when the Chinese government issued a public statement warning Chinese citizens to behave whilst overseas. While we certainly wouldn’t endorse any form of social media browbeating, the incident triggered an important shift in how Chinese tourists treat the various sites they visit. An alternative approach to inundating visitors with a sense of shame would be to offer more awareness to visitors on the lasting effects tourism has on historic sites, highlighting how past events have effected sites today.
The two teenagers from the U.K. who visited Auschwitz had a desire to cherish cultural heritage that is admirable. The natural predilection to wanting to own a piece of history got the better of them, though, and is representative of a mistake on the part of the Auschwitz site itself. Visitors need to be better educated to the effects their involvement at historic sites have. History is ephemeral and a historic site museum, and any other museum for that matter, struggles in futile against the tide of time in order to preserve what little of the past it can. But at the same time, tourism is an integral part of the maintenance and care of a historic site museum. Aware of the problems that come with tourism, such as the regular use or the attempts to bring home trinkets, can better prepare a museum to face the issues as they arise. The best thing a historic site museum can do is educate its visitors of not only the history the site has, but also the part tourists play in keeping that history alive. That means not just the metaphorical way their experiences keep the stories of the past alive, but the actual, real way their efforts of preservation while visiting can keep a site going. By being aware of this problem, museums and tourists can better manage their collections for future generations.