Some days, the intersection between tourism and history adds uncomfortable complexity to my task as tour guide. On one hand, I know the site may often be viewed by visitors as simply another local attraction. On the other hand, the site that I work at is a war memorial and a former battlefield. I don’t expect everybody who comes to understand the details of what happened there almost a hundred years ago; after all, the whole point of my being there is to tell the story to them. I also don’t mind tired or disinterested visitors – I had my fair share of them when I was a tour guide at the legislature. Some people are just there to take a few pictures and move on.
So it was surprising to me how much more frustrating it is when visitors begin to cross the line from disinterest to disruptive or disrespect. Their attitude in such a scenario can often be summed up as “but why not?” The interaction often goes like this:
Me: Please don’t smoke/climb the trenches/climb the monument/bring pets on site.
Visitor: But why not?
Somehow, neither the safety concerns nor the reminder of the fact that victory on our site required thousands of casualties never seems to impress them as much as I would like it to.
So yes, when a visitor tried to argue with me when I had to clarify site rules by saying “why does it matter? It won’t change what happened!” it bothered me more than I expected. But it also had me thinking back to undergrad courses on the First and Second World War, and the recurring discussion on how best to remember tragedy. We instinctively want the story and the truth of what occurred to be public. But when we make it public we set ourselves up for precisely this kind of misunderstanding.
Ultimately I think what I’m doing is a positive thing. I believe in the value of the site and that it’s important that the story keep being told. I think it’s a good thing people get the chance to come and see the physical impact of the war had on the land and to get to experience history more directly than they would from a text. But sometimes it strikes me as very strange that a site can be both a war memorial and a local attraction. I am still learning how to explain this fact to those who come visit us there. I can only hope I will become better at it as the summer progresses.