Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Tourists and History

Frommers just came out with a book about the 500 places you should visit before its too late. The list includes some places that are under threat from global warming and development, and places that are under threat from tourism. I havent read the book but have read articles about it and have noticed an interesting situation developing. Places like the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids are under threat from tourists and could be damaged due to the sheer number of visitors. Thats ironic because the tourists would be destroying the very thing they traveled all that way for. Its also even more ironic that Frommers would try to send even more people to these locations by claiming they will not be around for as long as we think.

I decided a long time ago I am not a tourist type, and I dont really like tourists much either. While I appreciate history and the places where history happened I never liked standing in a group of 50 people listening to a tour guide while he tells some story about why this room is important. A places looses its power when filled to the brim with screaming kids, guys with fanny packs, and women with sun hats all snapping pictures. You have your souvener shops oftentimes with an arctitecture that mimics the local history, you have your visitor booths, and ticket counters and lines and places for buses to park. I dont care who signed what in that building, its over and nothing important is ever going to happen in that building again now that its just there for the tourists. Historical perspective is lost in the groups of people, and its hard to even get a sense of what the feeling must have been like in that spot when the person next to you is yaking on their cell phone. All to often the pop culture feel of the major tourist attractions distract from the history, and it becomes a race for everyone to see how many sites they can collect, how many pictures they can take of themselves with something that all of their friends all ready took a picture of themselves with.

I also think it is crazy when something that is considered historic because people want to see it, but doesnt have much value beyond that is put behind closed doors to protect it. We hear about egyptian artifacts that are kept in London basements, or paintings kept at art museum storage units because the curators want to protect it. These things have no meaning if they are not seen, their significance lies in the fact that people want to see them, if you take them out of circulation I think that makes them meaningless. Its also very interesting to see when rooms in historic locations are blocked off, or like at the State House where you can not walk up the front steps! Yeah I know that last one is a "security" measure, but those steps are so nice, its such a shame to just waste them like that.

With that all being said I do like to visit places with old architecture. I like history and have been lucky enough to see a full piece of the Berlin Wall almost by myself, the Capitol Building with one other person late at night without millions of people around (walking through those domes without tourists is pretty spooky but cool) and have seen a bunch of other sites in a semi private manner. Thats why I prefer to visit places off season, or for special events. I also like to visit places that are historic in some way but are not in the popular culture so they tend to be quiet. Im not a snob by any means, but I just dont see the use in visiting a place where Benjamin Franklin , for instance, did something great and now Im expected to stand in this little crowded room hearing about it from a tour guide who would rather be on stage acting then down here showing off for us.

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