Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Memory/history and tourism

Yesterday the Guardian's "Comment is free" section ran a piece by Chris Jenkins criticising "conflict tourism" in Belfast, including viewing the sectarian murals and the euphemistically-named peace walls in the city, sites of bombing and the infamous Maze prison. Jenkins condemns this "gaping" as "deeply immoral" and maintains,
If this were history perhaps it would be more acceptable – but it's not. These lines are still a very real part of everyday life for communities in Northern Ireland.
 I've never been to Northern Ireland, but I have visited such sites in many other places, including Peru and Argentina. The comments from readers to Jenkins' piece generally disagree with him and draw comparisons with visiting World War I battlefields or former concentration camps like Auschwitz. But these would probably be acceptable to Jenkins since they count as "history".

I think the distinction is false. The sites referred to in this blog are certainly not part of any sort of "history" preserved in aspic - they are still changing, museums are only now being set up, legal proceedings continue, the perpetrators are still alive and live alongside their victims, and so on. That's why I refer to them as "places of memory". But at what point does memory become history? Do we somehow expect that there will be a moment when the development can stop, the period is finished, and then we can look at it in the history books and visit the memorials? It won't happen, and forgetting would be the only consequence of attempting it. Far better to engage with the issue while those affected are still alive to give us their testimony!

Then there is the issue of "gaping", suggesting that looking itself entails a lack of respect. I don't see this at all. I would suggest that actively engaging with the memory of conflict is important, yes, even if this is done by young people or those who are not particularly well-informed, such as foreigners. With cameras. Photos are a key way in which people in the twenty-first century deal with their surroundings and share them with others and photographing is not, I would say, inherently exploitative (the photographing of people might be, but I'm not discussing that here). Why would it somehow be more moral to visit a country as a tourist but ignore its very recent past, which as Jenkins rightly points out still affects large numbers of people?

I, for one, am going to continue seeking out places of memory wherever I go - but then, regular readers probably already guessed that ;-)

1 comment:

Otto said...

"But at what point does memory become history?"

Excellent question.