Is this how history dies? The world’s heritage has become a tourist spectacle, sterilized and lifeless

Jun 21, 2022 | 2 comments

Olympia, Greece

By John Keeble

I remember sitting in the ruins of Olympia, Greece, half a century ago and feeling part of it – as if the ancient Greek ghosts were still there, walking through their daily lives unaware of the wider world, let alone their sporting immortality. I experienced something similar wandering among the stones of Stonehenge in the 1960s, and Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in the 1980s.

Today, it is a very different experience with carefully protective walkways, viewing platforms and uniformed attendants to discipline the adventurous.

Recently I returned to the ruins of Olympia, beautifully restored and now with the millions of tourist footfalls landing on a well-kept network of paths. The ghosts had fled and their homes were objects to inform the modern intellect.

Ruins, generally, are now defined in careful narratives derived from work that earned PhDs and sometimes fame. They are important objects in modern cultures of learning and capitalism. Phone-snapping tourists, dressed in their national play clothes, exclaim “Wow” and “Oh my god” and similar in every rich tongue. They read the narratives, stare at the objects, and find what energises their intellects – a headless statue here, a mound of restoration jigsaw-piece stones there.

Checking out the reconstructed ruins of Akrotiri in Santorini, Greece.

They are looking at the dry bones that have been exposed, put back together and contextualised as objects, not natural remains once full of living, loving, suffering people – rock husks, monuments to laudable academic forays into the past, touristic distractions giving brief feelings of learning something, and a source of jobs and economic gain.

For many, the joy of “being there” has vanished and, in its place, there is the object and the narrative for the mind.

Another view of Akrontiri, protected from the elements and with electronic aids.

One wonders about the relevance of the tourist pilgrimages into the past, beyond entertainment, and whether the social archaeology of the present and the past 50 years might be better value for humankind and the world. True, saying this is sacrilege: we tourists must honour the centuries of explorer heroes who have dug into the distant past, scavenged meanings, reinvented civilisations with authorised narratives, robbed graves and stolen artefacts with the blessing of the powerful and the moral indifference of the masses.

Capturing the moment at Angkor Thom.

Today, our overcrowded tourist-tracks world is beginning to creak and groan again with the swelling armies of travellers recovering from the Covid tourism blip. In a year or three, after plague and war, they will again range from those experienced and eager to leave no more than a footprint in the earth, to the Chinese newbies who can overwhelm areas and attractions like the British tourism novices overran the Spanish costas in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Even a well-meant and respectful footfall, multiplied by a billion, maybe a trillion, is damaging enough to justify protection of the great sites as national, economic and academic beacons. The problem for some visitors is that it becomes an emotionally dead experience, reduced to tourism voyeurism instead of participation — quite unlike the connection of ‘being there’ experienced, say, climbing unfettered into Angkor Wat alone except for chance encounters with the occasional monk visiting or offering blessings.

On top of the ruins.

I recently felt that complete lack of connection at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini. The ruins there are hailed as one of the greatest insights into the Minoan world. It was full of dead facts and impressively uncovered ruins from an earthquake in the 17th century BC. A vast covering defined the experience of the site, and visitors, obliged to pay homage because not doing so would mean they had missed the big number in the island’s tourism show, trailed round, read the narrative, made suitable noises and watched a screen giving more explanations.

Not all sites are completely overwhelmed by objectification. The great temple at Abu Simbel, Egypt, is an example – though the honeypot nature of the site has led to pressing development including an airport, crowds, and limiting walkways that set the context of the tourist experience. I gasped when I saw this temple in the 1980s, with few other travellers, after a long pre-dawn desert bus ride from Aswan on the Nile. The objectification was so skilful that there was little sense of the temple having been moved from its original site and rebuilt in a protective shell hidden from the tourist faithful.

The crowd approaches Stonehenge.

Of course, early visitors to newly-discovered sites, wearing their Indiana Jones hats if only in attitude, often begin the process of ancient-ruin change from natural, living ruins to protective objectification … and, just like me now, later lament the change while looking for newly-available sites to do it all again.

Is there an emotional, empathetic route into the past through living ruins that need to be protected from tourist invasions? Or must we either turn them into dead objects or let the footfalls gradually pulverise them?

The Temple of Apollo, neatly under wraps.

One route to an emotional connection with the past might be in the technology of the near future. Though, with the caveat that the experience will be mediated in geek heaven.

Augmented reality, enhanced with walk-through parts for digital ghosts created from what we imagine we know of the times, could do the trick for some sites. It would be a step even further from the real but, despite that, it could be an education with a flicker of emotional connection, a flutter of an empathetic heart.

If that happens – how can it not as nations compete for tourist cash? –  it will crown an interesting series of developments starting with the natural (real) ruin, then the real ruin objectified, then the object socially reimagined within our cultural perceptions, then produced as Augmented Reality, and finally the whole experience consumed as a digital fairy tale masquerading as truth. I just hope they have real-reality vegan choc ices.

John Keeble is a former staff member of the British newspaper The Guardian. He lives in Cuenca.


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