I am writing this on a train headed north from King’s Cross to Leeds for the International Medieval Congress, with the English countryside speeding by the window. Alas, my aspirations of blogging every day on this trip have not come to pass. We have had four fabulous days, going solid from 8am til well past midnight, and the blogging just never happened. So now it’s time for a bit of catching up, and I will endeavor to do better from here on out!
We wanted to start this trip off on the right foot, so we began with a bit of bonding on the flight: a synchronized viewing of the final Twilight movie (we really know how to set a high intellectual tone, don’t we?). Aside from our poor entertainment choices, it was a good flight. There was even a pretty decent butter chicken on the menu. Three cheers for Virgin Atlantic!
Once we arrived, we fought off the travel tiredness with a lovely pub lunch and then headed out for a bit of open-air people watching. We started off by checking out the mix of tourists in some places that don’t charge admission – kind of a baseline for London tourists before getting into more specialized spots. So we headed off to Buckingham Palace and spent awhile watching the folks who were watching the guards (we are so meta!). Then we made our way over to Trafalgar Square and Westminster to check out those crowds as well.
The second day found us at two of London’s big-ticket tourist destinations: the Tower and Westminster Abbey. Day three was a gorgeous, summer Saturday, and we spent it visiting Salisbury and Stonehenge. Yesterday was spent primarily at Shakespeare’s Globe and its South Bank environs.
Tourists really are fascinating to watch. Although I have been casually observing them (or, perhaps preferably, “us”) for what seems like my entire life, purposeful observation is always different, especially when you can enlist the help of a couple of other pairs of watchful eyes. Our overarching goal on this trip is to try and discover what people are hoping to “get” out of their tourist experience. Although we still have quite a bit of work ahead of us, we already have a several hypotheses.
The initial thing that has stuck with us is that so many people seem to be looking for a sense of ownership. This desire can manifest itself in many different physical forms, but the most obvious one is get-a-picture-of-yourself-with-the-famous-landmark-in-the-background.
I certainly don’t claim that this is a new thing, but the myriad of ways in which our lives today are mediated by technology has, I would guess, increased the importance of capturing that perfect moment. In an era when taking “selfies” – even in mundane settings – has become commonplace, we certainly wouldn’t miss a chance to give our friends and family a glimpse of us standing in front of something as monumental as Stonehenge.
This impulse can definitely be taken too far, though. Some folks are so preoccupied with “capturing the moment” that they miss the experience itself. When we asked one heritage guide if there was one thing he’d like to tell visitors, he didn’t hesitate to respond. Put down the camera, he said. Be in the moment.
The desire to own the experience can also quickly bypass simple distraction and result in outright disrespect. Many visitors ignore signs and verbal reminders that photography is not allowed in all places and at all times. Some are surreptitious about their disregard for the rules, hiding their iPhones under their jackets to snap a quick photo. But others clearly feel entitled to a photo record of their experience, openly using their cameras until they are directly asked to refrain from doing so. We witnessed one such visitor to Westminster Abbey (who had even propped up his camera on a choir stall): when asked to put away his camera, he plopped his camera bag down on a chair with an audible sigh and made a big show of detaching telephoto lenses and packing and repacking everything into the bag under a docent’s watchful eye.
However, owning the experience can take certainly take other forms. Souvenir shops, with their wide range of options, are an important part of the tourist experience for many (myself included). Popular items include postcards, pop-up books, rain ponchos for those who have come unprepared, and teddy bears dressed as Beefeaters. “It doesn’t matter if you like it,” one Stonehenge visitor stated matter-of-factly to her friend, “just so long as you get something.”
I certainly don’t claim that owning a tourist experience is always – or even mostly – a material matter. We also want to internalize the experience. We want it to change us, to make us more cultured, or more educated. Or at the very least, we want it to change others’ perceptions of us, to make us appear as if the experience has enriched us.
But that is another topic for another day. My train is about to arrive in Leeds, so it is time for me to head out and spend some time with my fellow medievalists.