Almost all gaol, police and court museums now have websites to advertise their attractions, but they are still primarily places that you have to physically visit. To fully participate in the convict experience visitors will have to feel the cold dampness of a stone prison wall; feel the claustrophobic conditions of a cramped cell; lie on an uncomfortable prison mattress and feel every lump and bump of the basic metal bed below. I am not saying that this fully reproduces the experience of being a prisoner – after all, visitors are not locked in a cell 23 hours a day for months on end. However, there is something valuable in standing on a Victorian prison landing; or standing in the dock of, say, St Georges Hall (Liverpool Assize Court) and feeling how exposed and vulnerable a defendant appearing there must have felt – Florence Maybrick, for example, who was prosecuted there in 1889 (Watson 2004).
At the moment there are no solely virtual environments which attempt to recreate the Victorian or Edwardian prison (although it is possible that one will be developed at some point), however, some heritage sites do have very sophisticated ‘online doorways’ through which you are lead in order to further entice you to visit the actual site itself. So to some extent we can journey to dark sites of pain and punishment whilst sitting at home in front of the laptop. When we do, the interpretation of what we are seeing becomes even more important. It also becomes much harder, for it is difficult enough for museums to devise interpretive devices which present information to visitors in person at the site, but trying to appeal to the hugely divergent set of online viewers in the short period of time that ‘surfers’ spend on a website, whilst at the same time maintaining sensitivity to the subject matter, must be impossible. Museums must feel constrained by the divergent needs to both educate and to entertain online viewers as they do for visitors to the physical site itself. Museums are, after all, trying to keep their financial heads above water, and an overly dry and didactic website full of academic text may put off some who might otherwise have been tempted to visit. The jarring nature of some website blurbs reveal the strain of trying to be authentic to the experience, whilst also seeking to gather in the greatest number of ‘bums-on-seats’:
“Many families planning a visit to Alcatraz worry about bringing children to a former penitentiary – they often ask us if it is appropriate for them. Our answer is a definite ‘yes!’ There is no reason to hesitate bringing children to the Rock.”.
The intention of gaol museum websites is to attract people to go there; they encourage inclusive involvement, which is a good thing. The vast majority of people will never have the opportunity of visiting a prison and therefore going to a gaol museum (even a former one which may have closed years or decades earlier) might encourage some insight into what life is really like for prisoners today. However, there are a few ‘places’ which are nearly or wholly cyber-sites of Dark Tourism. For example, although there are a few permanent museum exhibitions which portray the horror of the RMS Titanic’s demise (in Liverpool, Belfast, and Halifax, Nova Scotia) there are also 132 million websites dedicated to the sinking (and its aftermath). Jack the Ripper has a few “Murder Trail” guided walks around the Whitechapel area, but also one million websites discussing (and re-presenting) the case in cyberspace. Simply put, the closest we can get to the actual site of the sinking of the White Star liner in 1912 is by viewing a website. Some of the millions of websites dedicated to the Titanic or Jack the Ripper are more historically accurate than others, and have obviously been constructed by diligent researchers who have a deep interest in those events.
If well researched, but amateur, websites are increasingly constituting a virtual site of dark tourism, where does that leave scholarly attempts at online engagement with histories of crime and punishment? Are visitors to the Old Bailey Online, and in future, visitors to the Digital Panopticon much more than tourists to the dark and distant past? A few clicks on the OBO can furnish us with all the grizzly details of a murder trial that ended in a death sentence – we can know the names, ages, and situations of those involved, the ordinary’s accounts even let us follow a select few to the gallows themselves. These sites are, of course, primarily academic and educational resources. But so too, are many physical sites of dark tourism that tread a fine (and not always successful) line at balancing education and entertainment.
Examples of digital dark tourism exist in a not insignificant number currently, and are set to become even more numerous in years to come. With the potential for millions of individuals to engage with such sites on a daily basis, most for only a brief period of time, perhaps the responsibility to make sure that visitors go away with an appropriate and educationally focussed message is greater that even at physical sites. After all, not only do visitors spend longer, and give more undivided attention to the presentation of material at a physical site, but there can also be interpreters and other employees present on sites to make sure that central messages are reinforced, and the appropriate tone is struck. Virtual sites of dark tourism are very different in this respect – anonymous, and unmonitored.
Should academics and heritage professionals be leading the way in creating thoughtful and appropriate virtual sites of dark tourism that simultaneously promote interest and engagement with the dark and painful past and keep the focus on information and education?
Digital dark tourism reflects some of the problems of online comment and research more generally: first who is posting the material, and for what purpose, and second what are the sources upon which the opinion or research is based. The online environment democratises in that it allows a multiplicity of opinions and ideas, but without this information about author, purpose and sources, it is difficult to evaluate the validity of these opinions and ideas. In the context of dark tourism, as this post suggests, online resources may be innovative in bringing history to life for new audiences in new ways, but it may also have the potential to be misleading, or even actively, purposefully distorting.
The engagement of academics in the online environment is an important question for researchers more generally. At the moment the development of online resources, even the maintenance of a blog, is not necessarily incentivised or rewarded, so what is the motivation for academics to engage in this sort of activity? What does it add to our own research? And what can we add to the understanding and engagement of others with history, or any other discipline? The strategy of creating ‘thoughtful and appropriate visual sites’ may present a significant challenge for researchers, (perhaps more used to the ‘dry and didactic’) but also may have potential for sparking new ideas and avenues for future research through engagement with new audiences. However, the purpose and value of the researcher in engaging online has to be clearly identified, otherwise the risk is merely adding further to sites of digital dark tourism, without actually encouraging further understanding of the events or places described.