Memory, Authenticity and the Tourist Gaze

Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London

by Ares Kalandides

A couple of weeks ago I visited London for some days. My business appointment was fast and successful, so I had some time to enjoy myself as a tourist – something that I rarely do.  I  picked a hotel on Russell Square in Bloomsbury and on both days I was there, I had my morning coffee in the square gardens. But of course, I had not picked Bloomsbury by chance. Which lover of English literature would have ever walked through those streets behind the British Museum without thinking of Virginia Woolf and her circle of friends?

Yes, it was Virginia I had in mind the whole time: from the moment I chose my hotel to the minutes I passed on that bench in the square. Visiting a place for me has always meant  a voyage to my own mythology.  As a tourist I am looking for the things I know or think I know. And though my eyes have been trained to look for the unexpected, my senses to relish the moments of everyday wonders, my deepest pleasure comes from letting myself immerse in the memory of place. Or at least the memory of place as it has been distilled and found its way into my very personal lore.

Isn’t what we see tourists do all the time? Taking photos of the most banal monuments, the most obvious works of art, the things they can probably buy – at a much better photographic quality – in every souvenir shop round the corner? Yet, this is very similar to what I was looking for in Bloomsbury: these banal monuments, the obvious art, are part of what each of us knows about places and what we go looking for. And once we have found it, we think we’ve discovered authenticity.

Houses in Roskilde, Denmark

Somethings similar happened to me a month ago in Denmark. I was taking photos and suddenly realized that everybody was taking the same photos I was. We were all looking for the “quintessentially Danish”, that quality which can not be found in Berlin or Athens. Or maybe what in our minds we thought of as quintessentially Danish.  The more I think about the term authenticity, the more I have difficulties catching it.

The first thing that comes into mind is authentic as something that has deep roots in a place, something that relates to its tradition and history. But how far back does that go? Where is that moment in history that we consider to be “the beginning of it all”? And also, does that mean that anything new is inauthentic? Probably not or the world would have stopped evolving ages ago. Is authentic (in tourism) what has an existence beyond the tourist gaze? The elements of everyday life that belong to the locals – not the visiors? In that sense McDonald’s can be very authentic. Or do we mean by authentic the unique? The things that can only be found in that one place? But what if that is only done for the sake of tourists – is that still authentic?

As usual, there are more questions than answers. I’ll have to come back to this soon, but any comments or ideas are welcome.

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3 Responses to Memory, Authenticity and the Tourist Gaze

  1. Caspar Lundsgaard-Hansen says:

    Just a few remarks on authenticity:

    “The first thing that comes into mind is authentic as something that has deep roots in a place, something that relates to its tradition and history.” Furthermore: “(…) does that mean that anything new is inauthentic?”

    I would understand authenticity as follows: when the (instant) appearance and the actual, real existence or ‘reality’ of a thing or place coincide. In German: Schein = Sein. Since this coincidence is not in the first place a question of time, authenticity thus does not have to be related to tradition and history; new things can well be authentic.

    Of course, a visitor might consider new things as not being authentic e.g. when he/she has an outdated or incomplete image of a place and thus drawes strange conclusions about what is authentic. The Danish houses above are probably authentic, but contemporary Nordic architecture in Örestad is potentially at least as authentic. In my opinion it represents the built appearance of at least some parts of the Danish society, hence of some kind of contemporary Danish reality or ‘Sein’.

    Another question concerns the uniqueness of places or things. The houses above are certainly (or that is at least the impression we have today) more unique than contemporary Nordic architecture in Örestad, which emerges in a highly globalised world. But authenticity and uniqueness are in any case two very different things, even though they may well be found together in one and the same place or thing.

    What authenticity is in tourism (“Is authentic (in tourism) what has an existence beyond the tourist gaze?”) and what role it plays is a question that would need further thought. Maybe later…

  2. splacing says:

    ©Renard Teipelke

    Are tourists really trying to find authenticity in a place they visit? Are they searching for uniqueness? It seems to be the case that we are dealing with various concepts here – all of them highly loaded with individual perceptions and ideas of tourism, tourists, and their ‘journeys to special places.’ What one tourist might see as something unique in one place, another tourist might find totally normal if compared to similar places s/he has already visited. What one tourist identifies as authentic in a place, another tourist could criticize as a Disney-like manipulation. What belongs to the ‘reality’ of a place (let’s say its negative aspects) might be extremely authentic, though a tourist could reject this authenticity.
    I really do not have a solution to these contradictions, but I am thinking about this concept of authenticity as related to or intertwined with the various concepts of identity: identify with a place, identify a place as, identify a place with…If one of these three aspects is positively correlated to a tourist’s impression/perception/opinion/idea of a place s/he visits, then a place could qualify as authentic in her/his mind. And then, a tourist might be happy with the journey – and even if the individual judgment would be imbalanced, one-sided, or fatuous, we should be satisfied with the result that is one of the ultimate goals of being a tourist: feeling good to having found authenticity.

    (The issue of photographs/monuments/souvenir articles goes far beyond this topic and rather deals with the role of pictures and images in our lives. But one could add: proving authenticity through travel photography is definitely one major task many tourists feel committed to.)

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