On March 13, the activist group Avaaz placed 7,000 pairs of shoes on the Capitol lawn in Washington, commemorating children killed by guns in the United States since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Coinciding with nationwide school walkouts the following day, the temporary memorial highlighted the relationship between disasters and remembrance. There are already permanent memorials at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sutherland Springs. Newtown is developing one, and we are likely to see memorials in Orlando and Parkland.
While the desire to memorialize tragedy is understandable, this trend raises an important question: Will these monuments to the victims of gun violence become “dark tourism” attractions? And, if they do, will they be sentimental but ineffectual reminders of gun violence, or will they move visitors to end this scourge in our culture?
It may be unseemly to ask about the potential for tourism so soon after the school shooting in Parkland, at a time when students are mobilizing nationwide to break the logjam of legislative inaction on gun violence. But how violence is memorialized matters. Commemorative spaces can become focal points for movements to spread awareness and inspire activism.
Coined by British business professors J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996, the term “dark tourism” describes the attraction to sites of death that inform our collective memory. Such tourism exists at Holocaust-related sites, battlefields, the Berlin Wall, the book depository in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza and the killing fields of Cambodia. More recent dark tourism destinations include Robben Island, South Africa, and the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan.
Why the fascination with these dark memorials? Lennon and Foley point to the constant portrayal of mass violence in the media, which makes us want to see the sites for ourselves. The tourism industry, they worry, stands ready to exploit historical suffering for profit, sensationalizing violence to sell tickets. At their worst, dark tourism destinations may simply satisfy a taste for the macabre without producing any solutions to the ongoing problem of violence.
Critics are right to be wary of tourism’s capacity for inauthenticity and its disturbing ability to commodify death as spectacle. But if we examine Holocaust tourism in particular, it is clear that there is more going on. Whether they are Israeli teens participating in the March of the Living, Polish schoolchildren learning about Nazi crimes or American visitors to Auschwitz, participants routinely talk about the importance of these tours. Comments on travel websites, Facebook pages and guest books capture the range of reactions. Some visitors express shock at some aspect of the Holocaust previously unknown to them. Others state their commitment, however fleeting or enduring, to combating anti-Semitism and racism of all kinds.
These reactions tell us something about the relationship between historical trauma and evolving practices of remembrance. It has been 73 years since the last Nazi camps were liberated. So why is tourism to Auschwitz reaching record levels now?
Part of the answer lies in the continual depiction of the Holocaust in films, novels, journalism and academic studies that highlight the unprecedented, even incomprehensible, nature of the event as something that has to be seen to be believed. Other factors include the end of the Cold War, which opened borders once difficult to cross. And there is growing awareness that the last survivors are passing away and that the Holocaust will recede from living memory, denying us a vital connection to the past.
That search for a direct encounter with the past represents a desire that tourism both thwarts and fulfills. On the one hand, no one can see the Holocaust — it happened in the past, and its physical traces are fragile. The personal effects of the victims, including their clothing and their shorn hair, are subject to decay. The crematoria at the extermination camps were either blown up or razed before liberation, a desperate attempt by the Nazis to hide evidence of their atrocities. The extermination camps have been replaced by memorials and museums.
On the other hand, there is a powerful allure to the geographic coordinates where the crimes took place, and where their physical traces — evidence of mass graves, barracks, ruins of crematoria — still haunt the landscape. Even though the exhibits are curated and contextualized by experts, the aura of the real remains powerful. Are tourists therefore consumers of inauthentic experiences packaged as the real thing? Hardly. Most tourists are smart enough to know the difference between the historical event and its representation in curated exhibits, and the sites themselves have become increasingly transparent about their own evolution as memorials.
Ultimately, the label “dark tourism” is too capacious, too generalizing, to account for what are some very particular factors driving the rise in attendance at the Nazi camp memorials. But it does help us think of tourism as a way to take control of our collective memory. Through their photographs and stories, tourists take the experience of their visits back with them, re-creating the histories that the memorialists sought to tell. Doing so helps to combat historical denialism and the “fake history” that increasingly populates the Internet.
Tourism is not the same thing as watching television or browsing the Web. Tourism is an act of agency. When confronted with the next mass shooting, we may turn off the TV in resignation. Or we may visit a memorial to shooting victims and find the resolve to honor them by making real change. If memorials to gun violence draw visitors in the future, perhaps it will mark a time when, like the Holocaust, these horrific events have become a part of history. That will happen only when enough people accept responsibility for preventing the violence that all too often arises in our midst, a lesson dark tourism may help us learn.