The phrase “Dark Tourism” has gained currency in the last fifteen years as a way of describing the heritage industry’s opening up of former sites of pain and punishment Some places which have come to be associated with this term were opened from the 1960s onwards: Anne Frank’s House 1960; the Slave Depot in Senegal 1978; Auschwitz 1997; the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome 1997; Robben Island 1999; the Australian Convict Penal Colonies 2008; Topographies of Terror 2010; and the Stasimuseum 2010. Together they are a range of places, sites and institutions representing the legacy of massacre and genocide, prisoners of war, civil and political prisons. In many ways these sites are very different, trying to illustrate different kinds of histories with narratives specific to their own distinctive history. What they have in common is that they commemorate a dark past in human affairs as ‘a way of claiming that the past has something to offer the present, be it a warning or a model’ (Olick 1999:381).
They are also, in many instances, polished commercial operations that “form a growing part of a burgeoning heritage industry” (Mistzal 2003:157). Dark tourism has been the saviour of many former prison buildings, since they are popular with the public and interest in what went on behind the prison walls is a valuable revenue-stream. Of course there is a very different feel in and around decommissioned gaols in the UK than there is in Auschwitz or in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. They should perhaps not be mentioned in the same context. The depth of horror and misery that a visitor to a concentration camp feels is incomparable to the feelings we might develop whilst walking along a Victorian prison wing.
Quite clearly, the issue this raises is whether all such tourist sites can be grouped together as the display of the unpleasant parts of history, or whether, we as academics, museum and heritage professionals, or visitor to the dark and painful past, should be attempting to spend more time measuring ‘darkness? How would we do this? For example, for most popular sites of ‘dark tourism’ would seem infinitely possible to place them on a continuum that stretches along a line from the recent to the far-past; commercial to non-profit making enterprises; mass institutions of pain and punishment to the single example; highly interpreted to naïve…
Anyone with enough money can now spend a night in gaol. The cells in Oxford prison are larger, and warmer, and more comfortable now than they were before the gaol was turned into a luxury hotel in 2006 The award-winning development renovated what was essentially a late Victorian prison into a four star hotel. Converting former gaols into hotels is a world-wide phenomena (see for example, Sweden’s largest Victorian prison, Langholmen Prison in Stockholm built in 1875; or Charles Street Jail/Suffolk County Jail in Boston, but an overnight stay in them is not cheap. There appears to be an ‘incarceration premium‘ for those who wish to experience it. The publicity blurb invokes the terms associated with imprisonment – porridge, escape, a long stretch, good behaviour, light-fingered guests, and so on – but the residents can scarcely experience the same conditions as the people who had to spend time within the prison’s walls.
Academics such as Alana Barton and Alyson Brown have discussed the prison hotels and gaol museums that are in the vanguard of the heritage movement. Across the British Isles, a number of former prisons have been re-opened as heritage centres: Kilmainham Prison in Dublin was closed in 1924 and re-opened as a museum in 1971; Beaumaris followed shortly afterwards (closed in 1878 and opened in 1974); and other places include Eden Camp Prisoner of War Museum (1949/1987); Bodmin (1916/2004); Ruthin (1976/2004); Oxford (1996/2006); York Castle (1934/2009); and Crumlin Road Belfast (1996/2010). The former Lincoln Castle Gaol is currently being redeveloped as a heritage centre, and with the next tranche of prison closures scheduled to begin in 2014, more gaol museums will surely come into being in the near future.
The websites designed to attract visitors to the prison museums often employ images and narratives about prison life of the 1880s onwards, but concentrate on the more punitive elements of incarceration (and some include anachronistic penal punishments such as the crank, or the rack, which do not belong in the period they are trying to represent): “Sit in a prison cell, hear the door slam shut and imagine the harsh conditions of Victorian prison regimes. Try on prison uniforms, imagine the horror of being set in the pillory, strapped in a restraint chair or hung in chains. Turn the crank, carry out shot drill or work the treadmill”. Dartmoor’s website has links to sections on the ‘manacles and weapons’ used by warders; illegal weapons confiscated from inmates; details of famous prisoners; and insignia and uniforms of prison staff. Indeed, in the case of these locations, some seem intent on reimagining the prison as a place of gothic horror rather than rational punishment. The themes that are emphasised are darkness, terror, violence, rather than the daily tedium of late Victorian and Edwardian prison regimes (and least of all do they describe any form of rehabilitative treatment).
The very visible growth of ‘dark tourism’ in recent years across a range of sectors, and the developing interest in such heritage amongst a number of interested parties raises a number of central questions as to the intention of ‘dark tourism’ and its uses. Is there a set of core characteristics that sites or attractions must share in order to be considered dark tourism? What role should academics be playing in shaping and promoting the presentation of the ‘dark past’? When does the presentation of ‘dark’ sites, attractions, and events stop being educational and start being exploitative? Do we even need to care?