Convict cells, graves, and gift shops

Camille Perreault, from the series "Memories Are Made Of This", 2011

Camille Perreault, from the series “Memories Are Made Of This”, 2011

To many, tourism must seem among the most ephemeral of phenomena, an annual flitting from here to there and back again in search of sun and alcohol and photo ops. But to Richard White, associate professor of history at the University of Sydney, tourism is a significant source of evidence in the quest to understand how a given society comes to grips with its own history — both the official one of the textbooks and the rather more… unofficial. Author of Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, White is curating an upcoming exhibition on tourism and Australian history for the University of Sydney’s Macleay Museum (“Touring the Past“, 26 August 2013 to 15 February 2014).


IAN GARRICK MASON: I think you’re the first historian of tourism I’ve ever corresponded with. How did you become one? What keeps you engaged?

RICHARD WHITE: I was always interested in popular culture and the construction of national identities. A sense of nation is often manifested in contexts where national differences come into play — war and sport for example. International tourism was another aspect of that. This form of nation-making was particularly important for a country like Australia where overseas travel had so much social significance — for culture, for status — so I began with work on Australians travelling in Europe.

And then I got thinking about tourism and holiday-making as a cultural experience, how within Australia the annual holiday acquired such cultural meaning. I think the ways we choose to spend our leisure say far more about us than our working lives do, yet it’s an aspect of history that is too often dismissed as trivial. In a postmodern, post-Fordist world, image, identities, and service industries such as tourism become far more important than the production of material objects.

My current project — which looks at the emergence of “heritage” or “history tourism” in Australia, at the way a new country came to realise it was old — combines those interests in tourism with the history of popular historical consciousness. How do tourists contribute to society’s understanding of the past?

Tourism acquires a lot of its interest because it is so closely connected to place: particular places with their particular histories and stories and myths. It’s such a fascinating area of study because you are looking at individual engagements with “the other” — be it the past or another culture or just another side of the self. And all those engagements are rich and various.

You seem to be talking at both an individual level and a national level at the same time. To what extent is an Australian tourist’s experience of the home country made up of authentic engagements with a particular and local past versus exposure to a national “narrative” deliberately or unconsciously shaped by political and media forces?

That’s a crucial question. We’ll leave aside the problem of what might be an authentic engagement with the past — there’s a whole can of worms there around authenticity. But the interplay between individual, national, and other collective responses to the past is complex yet central to understanding how tourists might connect to the past. You’re right — the organized tourist industry and governments often seek to present the past within a national narrative. And certainly international tourists tend to be on the lookout for national differences and ways of explaining them — we look for examples of “Frenchness” in France, and so on. The national does tend to dominate authorized tourist narratives, and these narratives are the most readily-available evidence for historians.

However, when you can drill down into the meanings that tourists themselves bring to their experiences of the past, there’s another picture. It is not easily done, but there is evidence in visitors’ books, diaries, postcards, photo albums, and blogs — even if the only comment left in a visitors’ book is “awesome”. In these sources the national doesn’t loom all that large. Much of the emotional attachment to the past expressed by tourists can be quite personal, but it can also relate to a much broader collective human past: the melancholy of ruins, the horror at past brutality, the fascination about how people lived and did things centuries ago, the sympathy for victims of industrialization or of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. None of those quite deeply-felt responses have anything to do with national pride, the rather attenuated engagement that “official” tourism often imagines to be the only relevant emotional response.

The Australian case is particularly interesting in this regard, I think. In Canada and the U.S. — similar “new” settler societies that had to discover they had a past — warfare was a large part of the official history. Battlefields quite quickly became significant tourist sites where a national narrative could be woven into the emotional experience (though even there I suspect many tourists were not necessarily responding with the “proper” emotion). In Australia however, there were no battles to be proud of: the soul-destroying guerrilla warfare with the indigenous population was ignored until very recently. So governments tended to promote a history of explorers and pioneers, which was hardly a history that inspired a popular following. However there was a more “subversive” history — of convicts, of bushrangers, of rebellious gold diggers — that was attracting the attention of tourists (significantly, these were also the subjects that dominated the early Australian film industry). This occurred despite government attempts to expunge undesirable aspects from history: for example, the Tasmanian government tried to sell off the notorious Port Arthur convict settlement on condition the buildings were demolished; they were turned into tourist accommodation instead. Again, tourists were not being drawn to an especially national narrative, but to more disreputable versions of a salacious and vulgar past.

So when Mark Twain visited Australia in 1895 he proclaimed that “Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place… It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities, but they are all true, they all happened.” The language of picturesqueness, curiosity, novelty, incredibility, and authenticity was a tourist’s language. What he thought should attract the tourist’s notice wasn’t the authorized national narrative. He identified some of the things tourists were actually interested in: he thought the convict heritage particularly picturesque, was curious about Aboriginal Australians, and saw the Eureka Stockade, a skirmish of rebellious diggers, as “the finest thing in Australasian history… It was the Barons and John, over again; it was Hampden and Ship-Money; it was Concord and Lexington.” But that wasn’t the official national narrative, and he got into hot water for it.

Australia does sound like a particularly rich setting for the “dark tourism” you’re studying right now. To what extent do you think the typical tourist’s encounter with a “dark” aspect of the Australian past is like the experience of engaging with a novel — “I feel the emotion, but I’m safe because this story is not about me” — versus the experience of collective guilt or collective bad memories, felt personally? And do you think the nature of the particular experience is determined more by the site itself or by the person visiting the site?

I think I’d begin by again stressing the range of responses tourists have. Tourists are often stereotyped as shallow and inauthentic, almost by definition, and especially if thought of as opposed to a “traveller”, who by definition has a deeper, more “genuine” engagement with the place visited: “I am a traveller, you are a tourist”. That dichotomy is far too simplistic and I prefer to think of a spectrum of engagements with places that evoke the past.

Now within that range of engagements, yes, they are like novels: they stand in for real experiences and there is always the safety net that they are not real themselves. We might stand on a battlefield or in a prison cell and know it is only our imagination that is allowing us to evoke the past; we are in no danger of actually dying or losing our freedom. But that can still allow for a deeply and collectively felt emotion – a real sense of shame or pity or anger. Imagination is a necessary part of human empathy.

The range of potential “dark tourism” sites is also immense. Within Australia, for example, places that attract visitors because of their associations with death and cruelty include sites where indigenous people were massacred, sites associated with shipwrecks, convict settlements, and prisons and graves of bushrangers with a romantic history. These sites attract different kinds of tourists and different registers of emotion. And they vary over time. Aboriginal massacre sites were generally ignored by non-indigenous Australians until relatively recently. Convict sites have long been popular, but their meaning has changed — for over a century visits have varied between meditations on cruelty to light-hearted romps. Is it dark tourism when tourists squeal at being closed in a convict cell or when one pretends to lash another with a replica cat-o-nine-tails? And when, as with a shipwreck, the tragedy relates to the power of nature rather than the cruelty of human beings, the emotional charge is different again.

In all cases, of course, it is not the site itself but the stories associated with it that invest the site with its darkness. So it also depends on the tourist’s knowledge of and feelings about those associations. One of the ironies is that some of the most notorious convict settlements — Port Arthur, Norfolk Island, Macquarie Harbour — are also places renowned for their natural beauty: the painful juxtaposition of beauty and cruelty can reinforce the darkness. We can attempt to invest some places with a kind of Gothic horror to enhance the visceral sensation — the rise of the ghost tour is an interesting phenomenon here — but I’m not sure that’s a necessary part of dark tourism.

Stepping back from human history for a moment, I wonder if you have some thoughts on how Australian tourists respond to nature? We Canadians are known for having a fairly pragmatic relationship with it — it’s fun to go out into but we’re quite aware it can kill us if we make a mistake — as opposed to the UK view of it, perhaps, as something tamed and hemmed in and needing protection. What emotions do Australians experience?

In terms of nature tourism, it’s interesting that the countries that first established national parks — the US (1872), Australia (1879), Canada (1885), and New Zealand (1887) — were all British settler societies where the original sense that outposts of “civilization” needed to be protected from nature was replaced with a sense that nature needed protecting from civilization.

In all cases these countries were beginning to link their specific natural environments with national sentiment. But my sense is that Canada was interested in protecting nature to more effectively exploit it for up-market tourism. In Australia, the impetus came from a desire to provide accessible nature to “the people”; the first national parks were situated within a few hours train ride from Sydney.

And yes, the awareness of dangerous nature was greater in Canada. Big dangerous animals meant there was more sense of the Rockies, for example, being a masculine space. In Australia, despite dangerous snakes and spiders, the early national parks were more benign, places for picnics and boating and heterosexual encounters. So though Australia was considered a harsh environment for agriculture and even just for living in, from the point of view of tourism there was often a more positive response. Australian nature was regarded as more intimate and picturesque than sublime — though it does have its sublime moments. From the middle of the twentieth century, as tourism extended into the red centre — Uluru (Ayers Rock) becoming the iconic site, imagined as the heart of Australia — nature could be regarded as harsher. Tourists dying of thirst in the desert, falling when climbing Uluru, and, further north, being taken by crocodiles actually seemed to add a frisson of excitement to the tourist experience.

How does the evolving view of the past translate into the self-perception of modern Australians? Who do they now think they are?

There have always been competing views of the past and of what being Australian might mean, but the way that contestation is configured has changed over time. The idea of Australia being an extension of Britain and British history — dominant but not universal a century ago — has lost authority but still has its adherents (among the more fervent monarchists, for example). But equally the 1960s idea of a distinctively national history — celebrating a more radical democratic history with convicts, bushrangers, rebellious gold-diggers, and bush-workers at the fore — has lost ground. It’s now often seen in schools as boring and elsewhere as cringe-worthy, a development reflecting the rise of identity politics around gender, ethnicity, indigeneity, etc. in the 1970s. But it too still has its adherents.

This contestation around history was clear in the bicentennial celebrations of 1988, celebrating the 200 years since British “settlement” (or “invasion” — argument about terminology was symptomatic). At that time the contested role of indigenous history was entering popular discourse, alongside acknowledgement of Australia’s multicultural heritage, which followed very extensive non-British immigration after the Second World War. The new recognition given to indigenous history was also at the centre of the so-called “history wars” of the 1990s.

The opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics revealed something of these tensions. The old British history was depicted in comic form. The bushmen were there as stockmen on horses, but simply as spectacle; the real emotional core was to be found in the representation of aboriginality as the spiritual heart of Australianness. Much the same can be said of Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film, Australia.

Now that placement of aboriginality as Australia’s spiritual core probably reflects the “creative industries’” view of Australian history, and it is arguably the version of Australia that many would want to portray to the outside world. But it’s hard to know what ordinary Australians make of their history. In popular media discourse (which isn’t the same thing) I think there are two dominant narratives drawing on Australia’s history. One is the indigenous story which does have a lot of purchase, though what tends to dominate are notions of traditional culture; a post-contact history hasn’t really been incorporated into a wider “Australian” history in — for example — tourism, though in middlebrow literature it has. The other narrative is Anzac: the commemoration of Australian participation in the First World War. This alternative sense of a national spiritual core was dying out in the 1960s but had a quite remarkable revival as the last of the original Anzacs died off in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly as it suited the more conservative agenda of Prime Minister John Howard after 1996. Whether its popularity will survive the excess of celebration that is about to overwhelm Australia at the centenary of Anzac in 2015 remains to be seen. But that also is a very stunted narrative: weirdly, it’s not used to explain much in Australian history, past or present, yet it is probably what most people think of as “Australian” history.

Generally “Australian” history tends to have a bad name in Australia. I suspect there’s also a reaction against “heritage” and against nationalist excess. But the idea of the past, dissociated from nationalist agendas, probably continues to interest many Australians. I hope it does anyway, but I have to admit I’m not entirely convinced.