Dark Tourism

Like my fellow classmates, I never thought to consider battlefields, camps, and the like as “dark tourism.” When I hear the phrase, I generally think of the more kitschy tours meant to entertain through shock and awe, regardless of their accuracy. Places like Auschwitz and the World Trade Center seem more to me like memorials than a fun place to go and be spooked. But I guess at the same time, they’re a little similar. I don’t know anyone who could go to One World Trade or to a concentration camp and not be prepared for a place like that to elicit an emotional response. I just hope that tourists’ initial reasons for visiting these two types of places would be different. That’s when it falls to curators and the like to make sure that the historical significance of a place is accurately represented.

A couple of years ago, I took a “haunted tour” of New Orleans that largely turned out to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Voodoo, an overemphasis of the city’s participation in the Civil War, and a walking tour of historically inaccurate sites from American Horror Story. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I didn’t necessarily show up to see ghosts, but I was excited to see some of the oldest parts of the city, and the roles that those places once played. That definitely wasn’t the point of the tour that I was on. I think it all comes down to drawing a line between meaningful and meaningless. If a site, a tour, whatever, can prove to you that what you’re seeing is meaningful to the narrative, worth preserving, worth retelling, then perhaps it’s alright. Auschwitz is obviously going to tell you an important story. Madame LaLaurie & Marie Leveau are going to teach you about the roles of white and Creole women in 18th/19th century New Orleans. But you have to tell the stories accurately – not just to get a crowd.

Preserving bodies (or pieces of bodies) because of scientific significance, such as the quintuplets, is going to help tell a larger story – what was medicine like at the time? How were people dying, and why? What did people consider worth saving? Saving pieces of presidents is still something that I’m trying to wrap my head around, but I can sort of see why it’s done. It tells those same stories, and helps answer those same questions, looking at the way that this country revered it’s heroes, and how they shaped the narratives around their death. As long as the collection and preservation is done ethically, I guess I don’t really have a problem with it. If that’s what thrills you (and you can explain to me exactly why), then by all means, enjoy.

Our Unprotected Heritage.

I’d like to begin this post by saying that Thomas King’s sarcastic, sassy, and real writing style made all of my writing dreams come true.

Money is more important than protecting sacred spaces, and bureaucratic nightmares have been put in place to keep us from gaining the upper hand over corporations and investors – who knew? The argument that one man’s significant historical site is another man’s waste of space is something that I’ve tended to side with throughout most of these readings, but this book struck me in a different direction. The earth, our natural environment, our cultural heritage spaces, belong to all of us. Everyone should care about preserving and protecting them. But “should” is perhaps the most unrealistic and unattainable word in the dictionary, because there are far more important things in this world than emotional ties and historic appreciation.

I liked Mischa’s point that people are not as naive as King seems to make them seem, and will work to protect the environment and our heritage from the corruption that seeks to destroy it. But then I think of Standing Rock and the DAPL, and how hard people fought to protect that land. In the end, money and the government still won. We’ve been talking a lot in my UF class about the best ways to create change in the modern era, and my students have come to the conclusion that perhaps the only way to maybe make these changes is to throw yourself into the eye of the storm – run for office, work your way up, and fight corruption and ignorance from the inside out. I don’t think people can solve this on their own, and King brings this up in his last chapter. Political leadership might give you a leg up in bringing about reform within committees and in legislation.

I appreciate King’s small optimism at the end, because mine was long gone by the time I reached the final chapter. Even if political involvement is the way to go, how do we make people care about these places when there is so much money invested in their destruction? His suggestions are nice, but they still don’t seem all that realistic to me, especially under the current administration. Rep. Jackson’s bill, emphasizing the human rights component instead of environmental protection, is a hopeful idea, but would totally be laughed off of the floor today.

I like to imagine Mr. King’s reworking of this piece for the next political generation with so many more expletives.


In looking at the sample Digital Humanities Advancement and Digital Projects for the Public grants, I notice that both types place a huge emphasis on innovation and revitalization. This shows, I think, that everyone within the field understands the huge necessity that exists right now for making history and the humanities relevant and exciting in the digital age.  Just in case applying for money wasn’t already a competitive ordeal, but the obligation to keep at the cutting age of technology and innovation has to be more important than ever.

To be successful, as these were, I think you just have to be so incredibly explicit with what you want to do, and how you’re going to do it. The timeline component helps with that, not only simply showing what will happen when, but also proving that the planners and organizers have looked at their project from every step, every angle, and will execute their project through the most organized and detailed process possible. If it were me reading these applications, seeing all of this would be incredibly reassuring.

I was also surprised that you could apply after you’ve already started work on your project. I, too, assumed that you had to be in the planning stages in order to take part in this process.

P.s. I don’t think I want to be a grant writer when I grow up.

I’m leaving academia to go design puppy exhibits…

Regardless of the realities of the job market for historians in academia, I know that I’m stubborn. I want to get a PhD, I want to teach at the college level, I want to research, and I want to write. But I can definitely appreciate the wealth of “back-up plans” that are available when the inevitable happens and I don’t get the job that I want.

I’m intrigued by the idea of exhibit design. A hundred years ago, I wanted to go to art school, and the idea of combining multiple personal passions into a job is… while still seemingly unrealistic… a tempting one. The folks at West Office have put together some really cool looking spaces.

A puppy exhibit? Sold.
I did not know there was a National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame. As much as the idea of such a thing makes me gag, the design is pretty cool.

I’ve learned in the last year that I have absolutely no idea what I’m good at, and what I’m suited to do for the rest of my life. Reading about these different careers keep me hopeful that if it turns out that I totally suck at the whole academia thing, I might have a plan B,C, D… X…Y… oh  look, I’ve depressed myself again.

I just wonder how prepared history majors might be for the outside world when they realize that being a historian isn’t a black and white gig. Once you get deep into the major, as a junior and senior undergrad, it’s difficult to get a glimpse of the outside world again before you graduate. Ages ago, I had a conversation with Shiann about how history majors should be required to take a statistics class. I also wonder now if we should be required to take a business class or two, as it might better prepare those who wish to pursue careers outside of the ivory tower.

Oof, reenactors.

By the time I finished reading Kowalczyk’s “Embedded with Reenactors,” I was fired up and ready to rant about it. And then, I found that Historiann did it for me. And, in a way, so did The Atlantic. As I began, Kowalczyk’s article ignited a couple of important questions for me: Is there a particular reason why the majority of these reenactors are middle-aged white dudes? Also, does the popularity of reenactment rise and fall based on the political and social realities of present time?

Don’t even get me started on the masculinity angle of these articles. You’ll get a blog post in the form of a dissertation.

Historiann’s article (by far my favorite piece this week) said it best: “Romanticizing the past, like reenacting, is a White thing.” And I think this is where I get hung up most on the idea of it all. Going back and romanticizing a time in which everything sucked for everyone but you is not something I could ever get behind. How many Civil War reenactors go out to the battlefield fired up to pretend to fight to free the slaves? (Okay, yes, I know, how many actually did in 1862, either…) I think that’s why I love Hamilton, the musical – sorry, Joe – it’s thoughtful reenactment: perhaps not accurate, but it gets as close to romanticization as possible, while using a cast made up of persons of color to highlight exactly why romanticizing history is problematic.

The Atlantic’s “Why doesn’t anyone think it’s cool to dress up like a Confederate soldier anymore?” touched on my question about addressing the present a little bit. In order to allow reenactments to survive into later generations, the reasons for it have to stay relevant. The obsession with the Civil War in the 1960s wasn’t just because it was 100 years – it was because the country was once again divided. In a different Atlantic article linked from the first, the same author, Kevin Levin, talks about how many bastions of southern (cough, white) pride once again felt threatened by the state of racial affairs in the United States, in the 60s. To celebrate the Civil War was to celebrate a heroic lost cause, and to perhaps even prepare to finish the job for good this time. The next generation of, um, prideful celebrants of heritage, are a little more bold in their remembrances than just wearing old military costumes and playing pretend. They are, terrifyingly, playing the game for real. I would be interested to know if any of them have fathers or grandfathers who are reenactors.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 5.13.39 PM

This also falls to the fact that Confederate memorials are being taken down, public places are being renamed, and “heroes” are remembered for what/who they really were. The reality is that social views are changing, and the volume of mainstream dialogue about how harmful celebrating things like, you know, racist murderers, is not so cool, is getting louder.

As for the Wikipedia gender gap… pffft.. shocker, there. People tell us that you can use Wiki to get a leg up on your research, as long as you scroll down to the bottom and look at/use the sources. I’ve spent months researching one particular person and just the other day decided to take a look at what wikipedia has to say about her: paragraphs of narrative with no sources. Cool. So how to professionals get in there, with the hope of presenting real, quality research to the public, and are denied? Sigh. This is why I don’t even take a glance: not just to avoid finding inaccurate information, but to also avoid going into a blind rage at the way that the site itself is run.

This was a long one. My bad.

One person’s significant place is another person’s headache

How do we decide the significance of a place? I mean, I know how we do it – the book told me. There’s a thermometer. But after we’ve saved 10 significant homes, how do we decide whether or not to save the 11th? What if it’s just as architecturally beautiful? What if it’s just as historically significant to the neighborhood? What if great-grandma’s uncle’s first born son once lived there? TL;DR: I’m having a hard time grasping the line between “worth saving,” and “we’ve saved enough.”

There’s this horrible Facebook group that my dad keeps adding me to (and I keep deleting) that attempts to celebrate the “history” of Boise. Sometimes it’s somewhat interesting (though largely unsourced), but it seems like the majority of posts that I see are made by old fogeys wondering where the old KMart used to be and bemoaning the loss of history every time the city knocks down an office building from the 70s. They’re all that I could think of when I read this book. I know they don’t make the call when it comes to preservation, but they get awfully upset about it, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s what some of these committee meetings might sound like.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m 110% in favor of saving and preserving historic buildings and places, but it has to be done right. When I went to New Orleans a few years ago, I wanted to spend all of my time in the Vieux Carré district, soaking up the history and culture. After a long afternoon of wandering, I became aware of the fact that the French Quarter is a money pit. Yes – it’s beautiful, but it’s only kept beautiful for the tourists, and I’m glad the book touched on this, and places like it. The French façades only hide t-shirt shops, tacky ghost stories, and ridiculously expensive drinks. Venturing outside of the Quarter is where you’ll meet the people who know the city’s real history. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine a world in which historic preservation isn’t largely used for capitalist interests, so I guess I’m glad that they’re being saved at all, whatever the ulterior motive may be…

Historic Preservation I

I think I echo some of my classmates when I say that I didn’t realize it took so much time and effort to preserve a place, and that it takes a lot of private investments and work to make it all happen. The bureaucratic review processes would be enough to make me give up and say never mind, so I applaud those who work in preservation and still have a full head of hair (50-53). In an age in which institutions like the NEH and the National Parks Service are under threat, I can’t help but wonder if organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation will be faced with a loss of funding as well. What happens then? Will the work become completely privatized?

Conversely, I think I would love to be involved in the process of contextualism (103). The work of matching and compatibility to ensure the aesthetic and historic value of a site is something that always catches my eye, and I always think of my trip to New York City, where you can see stunning old cathedrals contrasted against the modern landscape of Manhattan. You can’t just put anything next to a historic site, and to learn that there are guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior on this very process is incredibly cool (112-115).

One interesting aspect within this list of regulations is the notion of teardowns, and this is where the Preservation Idaho site fit nicely into the rest of the reading (117). On a couple of occasions, I’ve been downtown on a weeknight and was able to witness some of the houses being moved from the Central Addition neighborhood up into the North End. It’s abundantly clear that the Central Addition land is worth a ton of money, seeing everything that’s being built up around it, and so I’m glad to see that effort is being made to preserve these houses, instead of tearing them down at the first sign of an interested land investor. Before I started paying attention to this neighborhood, I didn’t often think of houses as being worth preservation, and I hope that further work is being done to maybe try and teach the local community why saving these particular homes was worth so much effort and time.

Relevancy and Inclusion

If museums are struggling to stay relevant in an era of social media and instant gratification, then perhaps the best way to revitalize them is to jump on the bandwagon. It seems like contemporary movements begin online, especially on social media, and museums would do well to make use of this massive shift in the way that information is spread, and history is made. Not only do museums have a chance to save themselves, but building a connection between social media and a physical museum allows them to start important conversations in public places outside of the internet, allowing for perhaps an even more broad audience. I think about my grandma, who asks once a month what “Facepage” is, and who sees those liberal “riots” on Fox News, but who also loves to walk through museums on a weekday afternoon. Imagine what she could be exposed to if museums decided to build this sort of bridge. She’s awfully proud of the hardships endured by the Irish immigrants in our family line… imagine if she could learn those same struggles are still being endured today, in a setting that is already non-threatening and familiar to her.

It’s heartbreaking that people are using museum settings to argue about issues, instead of just stepping back and allowing themselves to learn. The Aarons article in particular struck me, because I guess when I think of museums as forums, I think of them as positive places of discussion and learning. But the Le Blond article about refugee guides in Berlin has so much incredible potential, and I wonder if it would be possible to put something like that in place here in Boise. Boise (somewhat strangely, for this political environment) tends to (quietly) celebrate its immigrant and refugee population, and it would be so cool for institutions like the history museum, when it reopens, to take advantage of the diversity present in the far corners of this culturally homogenous city. Even further, letting those refugees and immigrants tell locals stories about themselves would be killer. The Hispanic Cultural Center over in Nampa used to do this a little bit, but if a larger institution like the Historical Society took the initiative, I think they could take the idea of inclusion in this city to a whole new level.

Making history more than a ghost story

The lure of ghost stories and hidden tunnels is what tends to draw tourists to the Old Town section of Edinburgh, Scotland, but it’s in the real historical sites where the story comes alive. Crichton Easton is a former employee with Edinburgh’s Mercat Tours, the most popular and trusted historical interpretation and touring company in the city. He laughs at the transformation that he witnesses in tourists when moving from supposedly haunted sites, to ones where real people lived, worked, and died. “The ghosts elicit giggles,” he says, “but the real history gets the gasps, and ‘ooohs, and the proper interest.’”

courtesy: www.mercattours.com

Mercat is contracted by the city of Edinburgh to do all “official” tours in the Old Town and along the Royal Mile. The Old Town contains Reformation-era buildings still situated on a Medieval street plan, and the Royal Mile is a long stretch of road that serves as the central hub of the Old Town, running from Edinburgh Castle to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. While the company’s most popular attraction is the evening Ghost Tour, Easton also gave tours and site interpretations along the Royal Mile during the day, and worked briefly as a site interpreter at various World War I sites in Belgium and France. The tour routes, Easton said, were strict and specific, having been written by the directors of the company. “The directors,” he added, “are all former Heads of History at schools in Edinburgh.” Guides aren’t required to go by a script, though, and are often encouraged to make their tours personal and distinctive.


a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website
a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website


Even in their advertisements, Mercat Tours boasts that all of their guides and site interpreters are university trained, having at least a BA in History or something similar. Easton received his BA in Honors History at the University of Stirling in 1992, his post-graduate diploma in Tourism and Hospitality Management from Napier University of Edinburgh in 1993, and a post-graduate certificate in Education with a distinction of History Teaching from Glasgow University in 2001. He says that his additional degrees more than prepared him for the job at Mercat, and even allowed him to rise through the ranks to interim manager of the Edinburgh branch of the company.

The company’s directors carefully research each site, and routes are often changed when new history or archaeological evidence is found. Interpreters also know to leave time for extra stops, as tourists always have questions or feedback that would invite further exploration of certain places across town. Inevitably, Easton added, tourists would want to know about things they had seen in films, or on TV. Dispelling those myths always felt like a job well done, though Mercat did eventually give in and create a tour of sites seen in the book/television series Outlander.

Easton loved his job with Mercat, relaying stories of giving tours to Barry Gibb (twice!), to the Russian Ambassador to Scotland, and to a NASA astronaut who was working on the tiles of the Space Shuttle. But he also understands the importance of making history relevant and exciting to those who might think otherwise. One has to imagine that in this company, making the history tours just as worthwhile as the ghost tours can be a challenge. But he says it’s not impossible. “Be confident in what you are talking about. Have a theatrical slant — once did a tour with 250 people on it — very hard work but worth it.”

Ava DuVernay on the legacy of slavery: ‘The sad truth is that some minds will not be changed’

From The Guardian, today: an interview with Ava DuVernay, the writer/director/producer of 13th and Selma

“Does she think 13th will help Americans face up to the legacy of slavery? “The sad truth,” she says with despondency, “is that some minds just will not be changed. It might help all of us to once in a while get outside of the United States itself, like go to South Africa or Germany. Because inherent in the very cultural fabric there, you have a sense of the past and of reckoning with it, saying, ‘This happened, and we will bear witness and we will learn from it, we will speak it and say that it happened and we will remember it.’ And we don’t do that here, so we can’t even have a real conversation about it. Because we have not been taught to talk to each other, and we have not been taught to remember.”

If you haven’t watched 13th, I seriously highly recommend it.