Earlier this summer two students from the U.K. were punished for attempting to steal from the museum at Auschwitz, the famous former Nazi extermination center. Rather than an elaborate museum heist, these two teens on a school trip attempted to pocket a button, two pieces of glass, pieces of a hair clipper, and pieces of a spoon. Convicted of a crime that typically carries a 1-10 year imprisonment sentence, they were released with a 1000 polish Zloty fine as a reduced sentence as they were both minors. The two boys apologized profusely and claimed they picked up the items “without thinking”, not considering their act to bear as much significance as it did. The museum curator confirmed that visitors often try to pilfer artifacts for souvenirs. Trying to bring a piece of history home, large or small, is virtually part of human nature. This part of human nature, though, can mean a huge amount of detritus for historic site museums. The Coliseum in Rome averages an annual 4 million visitors; if only .1% of these visitors decide to take a single pebble from the premises, that’s 4 thousand pebbles of the Coliseum lost a year. These small numbers add up over time and result in some of the major wear historic site museums must face.
But tourism plays a major part in museums’ place in world society. As globalization increases, the importance of sharing the lessons and experiences of local heritage sites to foreign audiences grows with it. Tourism invigorates local communities to shine a greater light upon their traditions, turning the familiar and mundane into showpieces to be relished by newer audiences. Old customs can be reborn as periphery celebrations to historic sites. A sense of identity in the face of an increasingly homogenous world can be reinforced when the homogenous world comes to a community’s doorstep. For tourists, visitation to historic sites broadens personal understanding and helps to reshape perspectives; learning about heritage and applying the feelings and experiences to your own life is the explicit purpose of heritage tourism. Both parties strengthen their own cultural individuality while sharing their commonalities. This mating of cultures is only possible via heritage tourism, allowing cultures to share and mingle the memes that embody them. As more of these memes are expressed and shared, they form the genes of the future, globalized society. In order to ensure a healthy balance of cultural diffusion, proper conservation efforts must be made to ensure authenticity to the memetic exchange. That is to say, a historic site museum’s objective includes the proper representation of the history embodied by its site, uninfluenced by the preconceived notions of its visitors.
While this may be enough motivation for the museum educator, the more promising result for a museum administrator is the financial benefits tourism provides. The financial advantages of tourism for historic sites benefit and encourage conservation efforts in a self-perpetuating cycle to increase more tourism. In short, conservation efforts require funding and heritage tourism provides a means to this end. In Peru, tourism funding is the primary source of income for the restoration efforts of the UNESCO world heritage site Machu Pichu. In Japan a concept called “green tourism” is used to divert funds to more rural areas. By using historic sites in rural areas of Japan as the focus, townships plan to provide proper maintenance and care for the very sites they are using to lure tourists in.
So in the face of these problems, how can historic sites and historic museums perpetuate the restoration and conversation of their stewardship when the very process they use to fund this perpetuation causes even more damage? Next time I’ll expand upon a few case studies of ways tourism and historic locations can coexist in peace.