The Postcard: Wish you were here?

By Dr Sarah Hodgkinson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Criminology, University of Leicester

The postcard, a friendly hello from a far away place – or is it? Dr Sarah Hodgkinson from the Department of Criminology examines the evolution of dark tourism, and questions the moral implications of opening up tragic sites for mass consumption.

Postcards are bought as mementos of the fun you had on holiday; a means of letting loved ones know you’re enjoying yourself. But what do you write when visiting a concentration camp? A place where millions of people died and where you can see the different methods used to torture and kill them?

Dark tourism involves travelling to sites associated with death and tragedy. This kind of holiday has grown significantly over the past ten years, with places like Auschwitz receiving over one million tourists every year. People may peruse the various ‘attractions’ eating a McDonalds they’ve just picked up, whilst groups of school-children laugh and joke as they make their way around. Some visitors even secrete items such as shower-heads from the gas chambers into their handbags; an authentic piece of history and a great souvenir to take home.

From asylums to the site of JFK’s assassination, battlefields to prisons, the list of places to visit is ever growing. But is it right that places which once held so much pain and suffering are turned into a tourist attraction for paying customers? Some people with personal connections to the events certainly don’t think so and are horrified to find the lack of respect displayed by many of the tourists. Others believe it is necessary to open these places up to the public; to educate the children who pass through; to remember the horrific events that took place, and to therefore never forget what occurred there, lest it happen again.

Social scientists are curious about who finds places such as these so fascinating and why people pay to travel overseas to visit them. They ask why so many feel compelled to give up their beach or skiing break for the chance to learn more about people’s pain and suffering? The fascination is not of course new. People have been seeking entertainment and making money out of suffering for hundreds of years; from public executions, to bear pits, to ancient gladiators battling to the death. Yet tourists are now willing to travel further and further afield, seeking darker and darker experiences. And what was once a very niche experience has become much more mainstream.

Research reveals people have always sought out cathartic experiences, the chance to release emotions deep within a safe, controlled and socially acceptable way. Books, oral testimonies and videos are not enough anymore: respondents say they want an authentic experience of events; that when these have been covered so extensively in the media, they lose their impact, and we become de-sensitised to them. We need to see it for ourselves to make it feel real.

Postcards will continue to be sent from places like Auschwitz for the foreseeable future, whatever conflicting emotions we have about the morality of re-packaging events such as the Holocaust for mass consumption. But in telling the recipient about what the sender has been up to, what they’ve seen, and how they feel, will they really be writing ‘wish you were here’?

This article is taken from the University of Leicester’s ‘Social Worlds in 100 Objects‘ project. Inspired by the popular Radio 4 series: ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, this work seeks to bring thought-provoking ideas to the every day. We have asked social scientists from across our University to give their perspectives on every day items, using their unique research interests to unearth the layers of meaning beneath some of the most recognisable material objects in society.

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