Monday, February 1, 2010

Shedding Some Light on the Darker Side of Historic Interpretation

Human begins retain a fascination with the most gristly aspects of the past. Battlefields, cemeteries, and murder sites become a beacon for interpretation and tourist activity. J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley’s Dark Tourism defines the phenomenon as, “... the commodification of anxiety and doubt [about modernity and its consequences] within interpretations offered and the design of the sites as both products and experiences (including merchandising and revenue generation) that introduces 'dark tourism.'"

‘Dark tourism’ has thrived because visitors possess an interest and fascination with unsavoury aspects of the human experience. While visiting Edinburgh last March, I took a "Ghost Tour" which led us through some of the city’s most ghastly areas, including murder sites and the tombs of famous Scots (picture on the right from a cemetery on Calton Hill, the resting place of David Hume's tomb). Visitors arrive at ‘dark tourism’ sites prepared to be shocked and appalled.

I would like to address the question of how historic sites with varied histories can interpret both the negative and positive aspects of the past. For certain historic sites, the darker sections of their history have been ignored in order to celebrate the more positive (and public relations friendly) aspects of heritage. Pier 21, toted as “Canada’s Immigration Museum,” has been accused of representing Canada as a multicultural beacon when in fact our immigration laws were not all-inclusive. The official website asserts, “We aim to be a national centre for celebrating Canada’s rich culture and diversity.” Tamara Vukov’s “Performing the Immigrant Nation at Pier 21: Politics and Counterpolitics in the Memorialization of Canadian Immigration” argues that the museum has systematically “forgotten” the ethnic and racial exclusion that formed a substantial portion of Canada’s immigration policy.

Acknowledging our country’s refusal to allow certain nationalities into Canada is not an aspect of Canadian history that fills visitors with pride. The question becomes how to communicate the darker aspects of Canada’s past to a public that wants Pier 21 to reaffirm their stereotypes about living in a flawless country. A visitor takes the Edinburgh Ghost Tour ready to confront the nastiest side of human nature; at Pier 21, the visitor wants to ignore the darker stories that lurk beneath the celebratory facade.

Visitors expect to be confronted with dark stories at a certain kind of historic site. It is imperative that sites with mixed histories address the darker aspects of the past. The public deserve a fair interpretation of the history. It has been demonstrated by the public’s voracity for ‘dark tourism’ that they are comfortable confronting the worst that humanity has to offer.

Visitors should leave Pier 21 understanding the complexity of immigration in Canada, retaining their patriotic fervour while acknowledging the mistakes that have been made in the past. Heritage site planners who ignore those aspects of the past are being unfair not only to the individuals who have suffered throughout history but also to their target audience, which is misled by the interpretation. These sites need to strive to present a balanced view of the past, and they need to realize that the public is sophisticated and ready to hear the bad along with the good.

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