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Interpretation of the unimaginable: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., and "dark tourism.".


Elsewhere, Foley and Lennon (1995, 1996, 1997) have argued that there has been a significant growth in tourism associated with sites of death, disaster, and depravity - a concept these authors have titled "dark tourism." Indeed, the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Paris has served to reinforce the power of this phenomenon both at Kensington Palace (her U.K. residence), the site of the accident (in Paris), and at gathering points across the world. However, as Seaton (1996) notes, visits to death sites have been an integral part of tourism consumption long before the 20th century. However, the development of media and communications-driven tourism motivations are a feature of the late 20th century, essentially because these technologies deliver global events into situations that make them appear to be local (i.e., via television and other news media). These images are then reproduced and reinforced via other media forms (e.g., films and novels). The concept embodies remembrance, interpretation, the simulation of experiences, and the critical importance of reproduction/duplication and the presence of various forms of media at specific locations. Media, particularly visual media such as television and film, are central to contemporary attraction treatments.

Tourism is both a focus of study and of policy and is associated with the project of modernity. Discussions of its development, promotion, impact, and significance suggest roots in rationality, progress, and historicism. In recent years, a number of commentators have discerned intimations of postmodernity in tourism and leisure (notably Eco 1986; Urry 1990; Rojek 1993). Implicated in this analysis are features such as rapid technological change, often associated with telecommunications and computer power; shifting political concerns; the emergence of social concerns in the design of tourism products such as "green" issues; ethnic and racial foci; and cultural relativism. Postmodernity has enjoyed a checkered career and has divided academics in its apparent suggestion of a new set of social circumstances. However, in respect of dark tourism, it is proposed that it accumulates elements of the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern into an integrative whole that can be interpreted as an intimation of postmodernity in some aspects of tourism in the late 20th century.

There are elements of the "ancient" in dark tourism, for example, in the construction and visitation of sites intended to maintain memory (Young 1993), and there is considerable evidence to suggest that pilgrimage and homage motivations to these monuments have prevailed (Kugelmass 1994). Visits to these sites, which could be termed dark, have been analyzed by a number of commentators within the framework of modernity (e.g., Ashworth 1996). These tend to adopt a perspective of rationality, progress, and historicism and stress the educative elements of the offerings. It is not uncommon for there to be a visitor center located at the site in question, which offers some interpretation via signage and printed material of the events being considered. The work of Foley and Lennon (1995, 1996) takes this further, discerning limitations of postmodernity in technological approaches to interpretation characterized by iconocentrism and montage; the effect of global communications on the types of events being offered as tourism products; and the strong orientation (in some cases) toward income generation, commodification, and ultimately, entertainment. As far as tourism is concerned, the emergence of simulations, replications, and virtual experiences as part of a tourism product has been a critical factor in the emergence of dark tourism.


The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has received visitation levels in excess of 2 million per annum since its opening in April 1993. It was built with $168 million in private funds and is the first major cultural institution to open in Washington in the past 10 years. Notwithstanding the gravity of its subject matter, neither the site of the museum (in downtown Washington) nor many of the displays (some of which are replicas) have an authentic connection with the Jewish Holocaust. Moreover, a feature of the experience of the museum for the user is the acceptance of the identity of a Jewish citizen of Hitler's Germany. This identity is presented on a card gained upon entry that can be updated at various stages in the visitor's progress through the museum - intimating whether the visitor has been arrested, imprisoned, transported to a concentration camp, gassed, and so forth. Some commentators have drawn attention to the irony of discarded identities in litter bins at exit points and on the street outside the museum. Nevertheless, the museum in total presents a powerful experience, which its market research indicates evokes a strong and largely favorable response from visitors (Eskenazi 1994b). Memory and remembrance are central to this type of tourism. As Young (1993) notes,

Remembrance as a vital human activity shapes our links to the past, and the ways we remember define us in the present. . . . However, we know how slippery and unreliable personal memory can be, always affected by forgetting and denial, repression and trauma, and, more often than not, serving the need to rationalize and to maintain power. But a society's collective memory is no less contingent, no less unstable, its shape by no means permanent and always subject to subtle and not so subtle reconstruction. (P. 9)

If one considers memory and the representation of the past in the context of dark tourism, one can chart an obsession with the past. This expansive historicism of contemporary culture is something that has dominated museums and memorials. The memorial culture is central to the historical past and in the case of a traumatic event such as the Holocaust. A central element for retention of a museum/monument as opposed to its replacement with the television/media image is the centrality and primacy of the object. Museum objects, whether it be the site of imprisonment or the place of death, take on a key role in a culture that is dominated by moving images and fleeting visions in modern technology. Permanency of monuments, ruins, preserved spaces can serve to attract a public dissatisfied with constant simulation and the media culture of the modern age.

The importance of the site and the primacy of the object have a "chronological distance" in terms of their permanence. As Levi (1986)commented,

If, at the time of liberation, we had been asked: "What would you like to do with these infected barracks, these wire fences, these rows of toilets, these ovens, these gallows?" I think that most of us would have answered: "Get rid of everything, raze it to the ground along with Nazism and everything German." We would have said this (and many have by tearing down the barbed wire, and by setting fire to the barracks), and we would have been wrong. These are not mistakes to efface. With the passing of years and decades, their remains do not lose any of their significance as a Warning Monument; rather, they gain in meaning. (P. 185)

Dark tourism is consistent with accounts of postmodernity. The starting point for the research into aspects of heritage and atrocity was that some common threads could be drawn between sites and events of the last century that had either been the locations of death and disaster or where such events are interpreted off-site for visitors (e.g., the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.). In this context, it is important to establish why some, and not other, events led to certain locations being interpreted and what is involved in the process of moving from death and disaster to attraction.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that opened in 1993 has not been short of controversy, and opinion was initially very divided on its purpose, role, and the nature of the message. The question, Why does the United States (a country that is 97% non-Jewish) need such a museum? Because it was not the site of mass execution (Poland), the homeland of the perpetrators (Germany), or possessed a significant relationship to the victims (Israel). It has been argued that the original proposal for this museum under then President Jimmy Carter was programmed to appease Jewish supporters angered by the sale of F-15 fighters to Saudi Arabia (for further discussion about the political background to the decision to develop this museum, see Miller 1990). Its origins then were in the Carter administration, wherein the vague idea of a memorial to the Holocaust was originally proposed. Following this, a presidential commission on the Holocaust was created incorporating survivors, scholars, researchers, and others. Following visits to various infamous European sites and concentration camps, a report was produced in September 1979. The report proposed a living memorial museum that would tell the story of the Holocaust. The museum was created from an act of Congress, unanimously approved in 1980, which created a Holocaust Memorial Counsel of 55, appointed by the president with five members of the House of Representatives and five members of the U.S. Senate as part of this governing body. The federal government agreed to give 1.9 acres of prime land in the capital for the purposes of the project, on condition that all building and equipment costs were funded by private donation. Daily operational costs are funded by the federal government (approximately $21.2 million in 1993) to ensure free access in line with other Washington museums. The private funding of the development was achieved via the highly successful fund-raising program "A Campaign to Remember" (for further discussion, see Moore 1993). Targeted direct mail packages specifically designed for certain audiences were extensively used. Certain materials were sent to people whose names appeared as predominantly Jewish on mailing lists, whereas a different designed package was used for general mailing, the latter stressing the key role of the United States in the Second World War and focusing on the U.S. liberation of Dachau. Just 2 years from commencement, $10.5 million had been raised by direct mail. Sophisticated narrative focusing on links through religion, culture, and involvement were used in this state-of-the art campaign. However, such fundraising activity came in for criticism from the Washington Post in 1992, which compared the process of screening surnames with that used by the Nazis to identify Jews.

Interestingly, Polakoff (1993) noted that funding offered by the German government for the development of the museum was rejected. An offer had come to the Memorial Counsel of a substantial sum if the museum incorporated an exhibition on postwar Germany (explaining the distance the new Germany had traveled since the tyranny of the Nazi era). According to the council's director of communications, all foreign government donations were unacceptable as "this is an American museum built with American funds. We also said Congress mandated the council to portray the events from 1933 through 1945 and therefore we could not in our exhibitions discuss the resurgence of democracy in Germany" (Paiss, quoted in Polakoff 1993, p. 6).

Despite this interchange, considerable assistance was offered by the German government in the sharing of artifacts and materials, and indeed the monetary offer was later disputed by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. Yet, the German government's concern with balance and image as influenced by the museum's effect on visitors seemed somewhat ill-timed. The position was well summarized by one representative of the German Chancellery, who commented,

We (the Chancellery) had concerns that a person visiting a museum which reflects only the Nazi times could raise the question of why the United States is in an alliance with such a country. . . . We respect the decision that was made to build the museum as it was built. But this doesn't mean that we wouldn't have liked to see it done a little differently. (Atkinson 1993, p. 5)

Interestingly, further criticism of the museum did emerge in the German press with the Frankfurter Allgemeine particularly vociferous. Such a critique is not new and similar derisive and critical commentaries were offered on the creation of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (which opened in February 1993). Criticism of the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from the Frankfurter Allgemeine suggested that American Jewish organizations have used the Holocaust as an ersatz religion to rally support for political causes among assimilated Jews. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine questioned, "Half a century after the war's end, is it advisable to lead millions of visitors through a museum that ends in 1945 and thereby may leave the lasting impression, 'These are the Germans and this is Germany?' "(Polakoff 1993, p. 6).


The museum's permanent exhibition, which takes up three floors, contains 5,000 artifacts, including photographs, uniforms, letters, a Polish rail car used to take people to the death camps, and a Danish fishing boat used to transport Jews to safety in Sweden. Audiovisual theaters are scattered throughout the exhibition. Near the exit, one theater shows excerpts from more than 200 interviews with witnesses to the Holocaust. Video monitors that display particularly graphic or disturbing material are located behind privacy walls to put them out of sight of children and give visitors a way to avoid viewing them.

Upon leaving the permanent exhibition, visitors are directed to the Hall of Remembrance, a six-sided building where people can reflect on what they have seen. If people want to learn more about the Holocaust, they can visit the museum's Wexner Learning Center, which has 24 computer terminals from which people can call up articles about Holocaust-related topics; watch film clips of or hear taped interviews with survivors of the Holocaust; look at maps or photographs; and listen to related music.

The concern with replication and simulation is, of course, central to the treatment and analysis of dark tourism. The concern some may have with the pastiche that such a museum may offer is worthy of further consideration. Does re-creation of objects, use of interpretative techniques, and experimentation with identity adoption (via the ID card) displace real history behind a facade of education and historical narrative? Not all of the objects are created; authentic cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto are used as well as objects of everyday life - sewing machines, prams, bicycles. In addition, a range of other artifacts, including inmates' hair, shoes, and other remnants from Auschwitz-Birkenau, are on display. Central to the interpretation is the use of newsreels, radio broadcasts, and papers. The reality of the 1930s and 1940s is re-created in the way U.S. citizens were actually informed of the rise of Nazi Germany and the progress of the war. Media once again emerges as central to understanding the interpretation of the events.

Interestingly, there is also art in the form of sculpture and painting at various points in the museum. Its presence seems out of place and at odds with the history and interpretation of the Holocaust. Some have argued that it offers little more than hollow decoration; noting that few visitors will pause to view and contemplate contemporary art in an environment that is designed to crush the spirit rather than send it soaring (Richards 1993).

Technology and particularly multimedia has been used to relate the visitor experience to the individual. The ID card/passport is instrumental in linking the visitors to an individual who actually lived through/died as part of the Holocaust. In this museum, technology is user-friendly to encourage identity updates of the passport individual. These can be printed out at various points and referencing can relate to an individual, time period, or an event (Schwartz 1993).

Inevitably, criticisms of Juda-centric/partisan versions of World War II history have been leveled from sources such as the revisionist Journal of Historical Review (see, e.g., O'Keefe 1995). Yet the opening ceremony itself, with its strong representation from Central and Eastern European countries, allowed a number of dignitaries to open up a debate on the questionable role of the Soviet forces following the Second World War and to pose questions with respect to Russian foreign policy in the early 1990s (Borowiec 1993).

The primary purpose of the museum has been defined by the director as educational; to make visitors understand how attempts to annihilate an entire people came to be and how this was executed (Weinberg 1993). It is literally a reminder of the dark side of human nature (Eskenazi 1994a).

Indeed the level of interest has been considerable. In the first year of its operation (April 1993-April 1994) the museum had over 2 million visitors and 36,000 requests for teaching materials.

Ultimately then, this is a highly successful project built with private donations on federal land. The U.S. government remains the ultimate authority and this influence was observed during the first year of operation when two senior memorial council members of the administration were replaced (since they were appointments of the former Republican president). Others have identified the presence of the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, at the opening ceremony as similar evidence of political influence. His revisionist views on the Holocaust are well known, yet his presence as a guest of honor was viewed as a political necessity (Moskowitz 1993). The effectiveness of the educational mission of the museum in relation to a development cost of $168 million has been questioned in the U.S. press (see, e.g., Levine 1993). Furthermore, the extent to which the Holocaust has been Americanized to infer greater meaning to the predominantly American visitor has been the subject of debate. As Berenbaum (the project director) argued, "In America . . . we recast the story of the Holocaust to teach fundamental American values . . . pluralism, democracy, restraint on government, the inalienable rights of individuals, the inability of governments to enter into freedom of religion" (quoted in Gourevitch, 1993, p. 55).

In this sense, memory has been made relative to the United States, yet the Jewish Holocaust was a uniquely European event. In some commentators' views, to compare this with the United States serves only to distort perception by presenting the Holocaust as some form of therapeutic mass cultural experience (cf. Gourevitch 1993). The actions of the museum's interpretative staff were both deliberate and intentional as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's director of public information commented,

Well, we have to tell the whole story, but it's pretty Americanized in that it opens with an American at liberation, liberating one of the camps, it was the Soviets that did that, but we needed to start with that connection. . . . We tried to lay out the history in a straightforward manner, telling the U.S. role, both the positive and the negative, and we end up in the end with the liberation and the survivors coming to our country. (Eskenazi 1994a, p. 13)

However, to commence the interpretation via the role of the U.S. forces in the liberation of Dachau immediately identifies the U.S. participants as heroes. This, coupled with the attempt to individualize the experience through the use of the ID admission card, can blur the understanding of the museum visitor. The danger here is that interpretation, since it confuses history and uses narrative techniques to maintain interest, will remove the real that much farther from the simulation - a distance that Levi (1987) referred to as a gap in reality: "the gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were 'down there' and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by approximative books, films, and myths" (p. 58).

The reality gap in the use of the ID card should not be overlooked. During the Holocaust, Jews scrambled to obtain false, non-Jewish papers in order to survive. Here, ironically the reverse is in operation; predominantly U.S. visitors enter the museum and leave with Jewish "identities." This is the problem in using the Holocaust or any aspect of it as a metaphor. This level of human suffering cannot be a metaphor for anything, and the more it becomes one, the more it becomes moved from the reality.

The use of strong imagery and graphic material or video monitors (protected by a privacy wall to exclude young children) has evoked a strong response. The other criticism revolves around why people would want to watch this material and indeed go through this visitor experience. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's own research shows the visitor behavior pattern to be highly reverential (Eskenazi 1994b). Museum visitors are predominantly educated to U.S. high school level and are willing to spend up to 3 to 3 1/2 hours in the interpretative areas. By comparison, normal U.S. visitor dwell time for museum visits is in the region of 1 1/2 hours. As the director of public information noted, in educational terms, museum research points out that 88% of visitors possessed some form of college education, including 71% with a college degree or more and 38% with postgraduate work or beyond (Eskenazi 1994b). Interestingly, their earnings indicated that some 58% had household incomes of $40,000. Perhaps most telling is the relatively high proportion of visitors (more than 60%) who indicated an intention to return.

This museum succeeds in providing an extensive historical narrative of the Holocaust and offers a cogent memorial to its victims. Indeed, the interpretation is clearly superior to the ideologically biased and relatively primitive work found at many of the real sites in Poland, for example. Yet, museums are obliged to win and reward the attention of the visitor. Museums are an entertainment form as well as an educative one. If the unimaginable, grotesque, and violent are central to American society's postemotional state, a state in which deep identification with the suffering and pain of others beyond the immediate family circle is difficult, then this museum fulfills this emotional deficit amply (Mestrovic 1996).


The imagery of dark tourism and the interpretation relating to the Holocaust can exert considerable interest. The subject matter is darkly fascinating and seductive (Steiner 1971). Furthermore, the educative mission is far from proven. Simply put: "Is exposure to barbarism an antidote to that very barbarism?" As Gourevich (1993) concluded,

One way history is doomed to repetition at the Holocaust museum is that day in and day out, year after year, the videos of the Einsatzgruppen murders will play over and over. There, just off the National Mall in Washington, the victims of Nazism will be on view for the American public, stripped, herded into ditches, shot, buried, and then the tape will repeat and they will be herded into the ditches again, shot again, buried again. I cannot comprehend how anyone can enthusiastically present this constant cycle of slaughter. (P. 62)

Indeed, the world 50 years after the Holocaust does not seem restrained by the world 50 years before. Yet, this is a story of great human importance that warns all that enter. Indeed, the concourse level in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum during 1994 featured a gallery of thought-provoking analogous images of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia (titled Faces of Sorrow: Agony in the former Yugoslavia, 1994). The similarities of cleansing a society of foreign elements, the reemergence of age-old hatreds, and the rise of xenophobic nationalism have a clear resonance. Such exhibitions clearly reaffirm the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's mission to relate the history of the Holocaust to current world events.

This institution succeeds because it combines memorial with museum and has been commissioned by an act of government. Rarely does any state commemorate its own crimes; such commemoration is primarily enacted by former victims, survivors or relatives. In the case of the monument to the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, this was commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center (the chronicle/prosecution of civil rights cases) and later endorsed by the state. Thus, the government was able to provide the distance between itself and past crimes. As Young (1993) questions,

Only rarely does a nation call upon itself to remember the victims of crimes it has perpetrated. Where are the national monuments to the genocide of American Indians, to the millions of Africans enslaved and murdered, to the Russian Kulaks and peasants starved to death by the millions? They barely exist. (P. 21)

The fate of the Native Americans and the plight of African Americans will also be commemorated on this famous mall of Galleries and Museums in Washington, D.C. But the critique offered that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum should cover other acts of genocide is both simplistic and unrealistic. To create (as was proposed during the development period) a hall of genocide would have been macabre and confusing. To develop a museum like this without controversy would have been self-defeating. Noncontroversial memorials themselves become invisible very quickly. As Musil commented,

There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument . . . they are no doubt erected to be seen - indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off. (Quoted in Wieseltier 1993, p. 19)

The enormity of the systematic destruction of the Jewish people is beyond comprehension, interpretation, and explanation. Language, images, and art are inadequate in this area and the scope of the subject will inevitably remain difficult to comprehend. As Wiesel (1968) poignantly asked, "How is one to speak of it? How is one not to speak of it?" (p. 36).


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J. John Lennon is the Moffat Chair in Travel and Tourism at the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development at Glasgow Caledonian University in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Malcolm Foley is the assistant head of department in the Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue on War, Terrorism, Tourism: Times of Crisis and Recovery
Author:Lennon, J. John; Foley, Malcolm
Publication:Journal of Travel Research
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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