Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Dark tourism: questioning how we memorialise tragedy

Berlin denkmal buecher architectural review

The flourishing mainstream activity of touring sites of tragedy and death often trades respect for memory for profit

In 1920, the Austrian writer Karl Kraus read an advert in the Swiss newspaper the Basler Nachrichten in a state of abject disgust. ‘Battlefield excursion: trips by car!’ promised ‘unforgettable impressions’ on a luxury tour of the Great War battle sites of northern France, ‘You leave Metz in a comfortable car and ride through the battlefield area … through the destroyed villages in the fortress area of Vaux with its gigantic cemeteries holding hundreds of thousands of dead’. Barely two years had passed since the end of the First World War. Families were still in mourning. Many thousands of young men were still adapting to their broken bodies. ‘I have in my hands a document that surpasses and seals the shame of this age’, Kraus responded in his article ‘Tourist Trip to Hell’, ‘and would warrant assigning a place of honour in a cosmic boneyard to this money-hungry mess that calls itself mankind.’ He understood that in selling a mass killing site and its victims as a pleasant day out, life itself, and its sacrifice, was being profaned. 

‘The passage of time enables trauma to turn into history, then into, sometimes profitable, heritage’

These concerns became embodied in architecture in the form of the Menin Gate at Ypres, rebuilt after the war as a triumphal arch. Designed by Reginald Blomfield, it is a grand, sober yet conspicuously unmoving memorial to over 50,000 dead, with its columns, stone lions and tasteful Latin inscriptions. To the poet Siegfried Sassoon who had fought valiantly in the war, winning a Military Cross, and experienced untold loss and suffering, it was akin to an insult. ‘Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime / Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime’, he wrote in his poem On Passing the New Menin Gate. 

Chernobyl architectural review

Chernobyl architectural review

Source: Roman Belogorodov

Day trips with photo opportunities. Tourists pose with selfie sticks in hands and smiles on faces under the ‘welcome to Pripyat’ sign, the Ukrainian site of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986

The question of how we commemorate is as relevant for visitors to sites where lives have been lost as for the architects who design memorials. In recent years, the concept of ‘dark tourism’ has gone from being a niche pursuit to a flourishing and profitable mainstream tourist activity. This has brought many problems; namely the sheer overwhelming number of visitors, the requirements they have, and crucially how they behave. The site of Choeung Ek in Cambodia was once a quiet reflective memorial to the Killing Fields, where over a million Cambodians were murdered. Even its skull-filled Buddhist stupa was not simply a place of horror but also one of peaceful poignant contemplation. In recent years, the numbers of visitors have increased eightfold. While interest in the atrocities and victims of the Khmer Rouge is welcome from a historical perspective, there are regular complaints about the numbers and the activities of a few, in the form of stealing bones, defacing the site with graffiti and posing for inappropriately disrespectful photographs in what is also a place of mourning. 

It is an all-too-common phenomenon at Holocaust memorial sites. In recent years, fashion shoots at Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin (2005) and Daniel Libeskind’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa (2017) provoked outrage. The former, with its undulating field of concrete stelae, has also attracted parkour and CrossFit enthusiasts. In many cases, the frivolous, narcissistic and reductive nature of social media encourages the more thoughtless behaviours of individuals.

The Auschwitz Museum was forced to issue a statement on Twitter, given there have been so many people posting smiling selfies under the Arbeit Macht Frei gates to the concentration camp or images where they tightrope walk the train tracks that brought countless people to their deaths. ‘When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolises deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.’  

Wax hitler architectural review

Wax hitler architectural review

Source: Henryanto / AFP / Getty Images 

A museum in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, recently had to take down a waxwork of Hitler in front of a backdrop depicting the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ slogan at Auschwitz, following complaints that it glorified anti-Semitism. More than a million people perished at the death camp, the largest mass murder at a single site

Following the recent success of the powerful Chernobyl television series, visits to the zone of alienation around the destroyed power plant and its sarcophagus have dramatically risen. Admittedly, it’s a fascinating place with its decaying city Pripyat existing in suspended animation, since the days of the Soviet Union. Its stadiums, hotels, factories, swimming pools, classrooms and apartments are still there, even if nature has gradually reasserted itself. Its Ferris wheel still creaks in the wind. As a result, it’s a prime destination for urban explorers and photographers.

‘It’s wonderful that #ChernobylHBO has inspired a wave of tourism to the Zone of Exclusion. But yes, I’ve seen the photos going around … If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed,’ pleads screenwriter Craig Mazin. While dozens of people died from the initial explosion and resulting radiation, it is estimated that thousands died from long-term exposure, and many more suffered debilitating health issues. There seems then a particularly callous indifference in those who have been undertaking fashion shoots there or anti-natalists who have been praising this glimpse of a world after humanity.

‘Perhaps memorials should be raw, should pain us, should not be easily absorbed’

The overarching attraction to Chernobyl is due to another recent development, ruin porn – a type of voyeurism that thrives in online culture where trauma is secondary to clicks (and the advertising revenue therein) and everything is reduced to casual entertainment. It matters little who once lived in Pripyat or who live still in neglected areas of Detroit, another hotbed for voyeurs of other people’s misery. It is important, however, that we recognise that there is an intrinsic human impulse that wishes to observe catastrophe from a safe distance, whether that’s tourists on the Golan Heights watching the Syrian Civil War unfold or holidaymakers in 1950s Las Vegas having rooftop parties while watching atomic detonations out in the desert. It is down to designers to offer them other paths than prurience. 

Dark tourism sketch architectural review

Dark tourism sketch architectural review

An abstracted Star of David plays out in the zigzag structure of Daniel Libeskind’s 2001 Jewish Museum

How can we remember respectfully then? The immediate issue to avoid is financial exploitation. With some astonishment I stood one day inside Victoria Coach Station and looked up to see the words ‘Jack the Ripper’ flashing up on the bus schedule between Ipswich and Kent University. In the evocative Victorian setting of London’s East End, the unsolved case of the Jack the Ripper murders still haunts the collective culture, fuelling its tourist incarnation. The subject is often treated as if he were a fictional character of the time like Moriarty or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and not a depraved murderer of vulnerable working women. Tours around Whitechapel have a pantomime quality. After a century of highly profitable ‘Ripperology’, it is only this year that we have had a book published about the lives of his victims, The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. 

Even when there is no financial imperative, there is still the risk of being disrespectful. The challenge of memorialising is to strike balances. On a basic level, to forget is to effectively erase and aid the killers. If the memorials are too graphic, they appear salacious. If too docile, they will lack impact. A balance must be struck between being educational but not enjoyable, respectful but not pious. 

‘Ee can treat terrible things that happened to other people as entertaining stories and the memorials erected to them as just backdrops for our narcissistic indulgences and days-out as comfortable tourists’

One effective approach, that avoids bathos, is to focus on raising curiosity by presenting enigmas rather than answers. If we come across a structure like the Mask of Sorrow by Ernst Neizvestny and Kamil Kazaev, the first impulse is to find out what it represents – in this case, the millions of victims of communism in Russia. Another exceptional example of this method are spomeniks; the mysterious alien-like constructions across the countries of former Yugoslavia. They commemorate war atrocities, Holocaust massacres, martyred anti-Nazi partisans and so on. Each in its unique strangeness invites further investigation; perhaps all memorials should have the quality of being a portal to knowledge rather than a conclusion. Yet even this strategy is undermined by the nature of online clickbait journalism and discourse, where a publication as esteemed as the Guardian can headline an article on spomeniks ‘Crazy Concrete: Yugoslavia’s War Memorials – In Pictures’. We might be generous and interpret such a piece as at least an introduction to the subject but the frivolous, insensitive and almost entirely aesthetic approach suggests not a beginning but an end. 

Arousing curiosity on its own is insufficient; what must follow is deep consideration and contextualisation. Powerful examples exist architecturally, handling with great sensitivity all the facets of collective memory and trauma – loss, anger, desperation, resilience – and avoiding the obviously ‘iconic’ photogenic approach, which inadvertently encourages triviality. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, led by the Equal Justice Initiative and MASS Design Group and completed in 2018, reveal with immense emotional resonance and intellectual rigour, the stories and politics around centuries of racial oppression and terror in the United States, from the suspended steel boxes representing counties where lynching took place, down to the collection of jars containing soil from those sites. 

In the case of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum (2001), Berlin, the experience of the visitor is one of initial disorientation with its zigzags, Expressionist angles, oblique windows and voids, and gradually it unveils (given it is a building that can be partly read) the richness of their secret lost lives, the profound betrayal that Jewish Germans suffered under the Nazis, and the terrible absences that were left behind. Deconstruction and disruption are much overused terms, phrases Libeskind understandably hesitates to use, but they’re apt in the sense that it is a building that fragments and overwhelms, where traditional conceptions of beauty and taste are inadequate. Just as you cannot get a single defining photograph of the place, it also defies trite simplification. It is a building that intrigues and haunts in equal measure, reflecting events that changed, and continue to change, history. 

Killing tree architectural review

Killing tree architectural review

Choeung Ek commemorates the murder of more than a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the Killing Fields. Although this is in living memory for some (1975-79), the site’s transformation into a tourist attraction brings both audio guides and disrespectful behaviour: an educational project tainted by exploitative undertones

In the same city, we gaze down on the empty shelves of a subterranean archive symbolising the books and the people who were burned during the Third Reich at Micha Ullman’s Empty Library (1995). Designed for passive, but not impassive, spectators, the feeling is one of deep empathy, yet it challenges the limitations of our feelings. We cannot even grasp the extent of what we lost in terms of culture and humanity but are, subtly and eloquently, invited to wonder – we feel rather than being instructed to feel.

Perhaps memorials should be raw, should pain us, should not be easily absorbed. They should sit uneasily in our minds, respectfully to the dead but disruptively to the living. The passage of time enables trauma to turn into history, then into, sometimes profitable, heritage. Part of this has a healing effect but it also distances us to the extent that we can treat terrible things that happened to other people as entertaining stories and the memorials erected to them as just backdrops for our narcissistic indulgences and days-out as comfortable tourists. The most compelling memorials obliterate this distancing. They suggest that the victims, or even the perpetrators, were just like us, indeed in different circumstances they may have been us. When we tread carelessly, with our clickbait, stunts and selfies, we are not just doing the dead a disservice but ourselves for, as memorials remind us, we never really know how thin the ice is beneath our feet. 

Lead image: Under a glass plate set in the paving stones of Bebelplatz, Berlin, Micha Ullman’s Empty Library installation (opposite) is a memorial to the books deemed by the Nazis to display an un-German spirit. These were burned on 10 May 1933, a precursor to the bodies burned at the death camps.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today