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A holiday visit to Waterloo, Or: The Janus-head of war commemoration

The memory of war has many faces. Or perhaps it has only two?

I have just returned from a journey to Belgium where the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, one hundred years ago, was being commemorated with much stately pomp.

The long Battle of Passchendaele, which killed many hundreds of thousands of people, was part of the Great War. In Belgium, the words ‘Great War’ still apply to the First World War, as they do in the UK. Meanwhile, in many other western-European countries World War Two has taken its place as the most vividly remembered and eagerly memorialised war.

It would be revealing to compile a longer list of fights, some probably much more recent, that figure as the war for different cultures across the world. For my own specialist area as an historian, the case is clear: for much of the nineteenth century, the ‘great war’ of Europe and of many colonised areas, too, was formed by the French and Napoleonic Wars which lasted from 1792 to 1815.

The panorama near Waterloo (see below), by Louis Dumoulin.

This duration alone makes clear that these wars shaped a generation or two in their thinking. Like with the First and Second World Wars, the human, material and economic devastation of these wars was enormous. And they were likewise turned to political profit by both winners and losers for ages to come. In sum, for nineteenth-century Europeans, the French and Napoleonic Wars were what shaped their consciousness of what war means, and why it should never happen again.

During my stay in Belgium I did not visit Passchendaele, but I did go to Waterloo, most famous of Napoleonic war locations.

In and around the village of Waterloo a string of visitor attractions has been erected that can keep you busy for a long weekend, even if you are not the kind of person who engages in historical role playing or studying detailed maps of military campaigns – for both of which there is also plenty of opportunity around Waterloo. When I got out of our car I still half wondered whether Abba is partly responsible for current interest in Waterloo, but the tourism we encountered is clearly long-established and focused on different things.

Tourism of what is now called the Battle of Waterloo started in 1815, right after the fighting. (I am writing a separate article about this, from which I might also publish extracts here.) An important impetus was given in the 1820s, when one of the victors who also happened to own the land commanded a monument on the site: an artificial hill mounted by a cast-iron lion. The commissioner: the king of the Netherlands.

For him, the lion symbolised the Dutch monarchy, although it has historically also been associated with other aristocratic families and their territories, such as Flanders and England. At that time, Waterloo was still situated within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the lion was positioned to face the old opponent, France.

In 1830, however, Belgium began its fight for independence from the Netherlands, aided by France. As a display in the local museum tells us, the lion came under serious threat. Yet the battle field’s economic function as a tourist magnet saved the lion: armed locals successfully defended one of their main sources of income. Still, the lion had at that point changed from just being an anti-French symbol to also being a hated symbol of Dutchness.

Marcellin Jobard, lithography (1825) of the Butte du lion under construction.

In 1912, another important attraction was added: a panorama of the fight itself, panoramas being a much-loved type of entertainment throughout the long nineteenth century. Visitors can still enter the white circular neoclassical building, climb the staircase in the centre, and emerge amidst a gruesome spectacle of dead horses and groaning soldiers. (I wonder when the sound effects were added?)

Like in other panoramas, the scene partly consist of three-dimensional models and partly of an enormous circular painting. The painting, ironically, was done by Frenchmen. After all, the site now belonged to (French-speaking) Belgium. Evidently, Frenchness had lost its political sensitivity in this region, especially in these years leading up to the First World War, when tensions were building between Belgium/Wallonia and Germany rather than France.

Present-day visitors, with the panorama’s spectacle of despair fresh on their retina, are then invited to climb the mound and imagine the historical war painting as an overlay of the peaceful fields surrounding the lion.

The fields around the lion look peaceful now. In the distance: two more monuments.

Next to these two sights (the lion’s mound and the panorama), visitors can wander around the site of the battle itself, including a brand-new museum and the ruins of the Hougoumont farm-fortress, one of the locations where the allied forces were beleaguered in 1815 and which again includes many visitor displays. In the village of Waterloo itself, moreover, is a Wellington museum, and nearby Napoleon’s headquarters can be seen.

Near the mound tourists can rest in the ‘Bivouac de l’Empereur’: the name of the brasserie refers to Napoleon, its logo to the Dutch lion, and its menu and website to beef Wellington and English tea rooms. When we have our lunch, we are in fact a little uncertain as to whether we are sitting in ‘Napoleon’s bivouac’ or in ‘Wellington’s café’. Signage is ambiguous – and perhaps on purpose, for why not cast your net for customers wide?

Such re-appropriation of history by authorities, visitors and shopkeepers alike, was and is visible throughout the site.

A strange mixture of merry entertainment and ear-splitting education – for those who want to hear the message.

The museum bookshop has sections in English, French, Dutch and German, with the English section focusing heavily on the worshipped Iron Duke (Wellington) and including such volumes as the ironically titled ‘How the French won Waterloo (or Think They Did)’.

The museum itself, meanwhile, is more Napoleon-oriented, with displays on his social innovations and a wall-high portrait towering over all the other portraits in the room, which feature the diminutive heads of state that opposed him. Has the fact that the museum was created by the mostly French-speaking Walloon region, which contains some fiercely anti-Flemish figures, anything to do with this? Or perhaps Napoleon simply appeals to the international imagination a little more than does Wellington?

The German historical forces receive less attention both in the museum and by German visitors themselves, judging for instance from the languages represented in the museum bookshop and restaurant menu. The Prussian, Hanoverian and other German contribution to the 1815 fighting was in fact enormous, but German military admiration has fallen rather out of fashion in the twentieth century, unlike e.g. the British, which may explain the modest German presence in Waterloo. Another explanation is that the Battle of Leipzig (1813, Napoleon’s first defeat) perhaps takes a greater part in the German collective memory.

The Scottish identity, on the other hand, is given a boost in Waterloo, with special Scottish days being organised and visitors walking around with the Scottish flag across on their bellies.

The little chapel at Hougoumont is an equally many-faced space. Here, Catholic rather than nationalist pilgrims may find a scorched crucifix hanging over the door: the very crucifix which extinguished the fire at the farm in 1815.

Yet in the same chapel, British regiments and other UK visitors lay wreaths of poppies, thus appropriating a symbol from their Great War for a much older war. They leave messages in the chapel’s visitor-book: ‘They fought for our freedom’. Freedom from whom, one wonders, and freedom to do what? So far, I have not come across the use of poppies in relation to the Norman invasion of the eleventh century; possibly because the English did not win that war. Such selective memory rings uncanny bells.

I must immediately add that the visitor-book does contain a great diversity of opinions, with many tourists simply being deeply touched by the horrors on display.

On behalf of commercial interests, as many as five flags are displayed from the buildings near the mound: the French flag, in a generous gesture to include the war’s losers (this would be harder to find in commemorations of more recent wars: where were the German representatives in Passchendaele? Time has healed some wounds here near Waterloo); the Dutch; the British; and the Belgian and the German, flags of two states that did not even exist when the battle took place, suggesting that modern nationalist feeling is more important here than commemorating the events of 1815.

I am also pretty sure I have seen the flag of the EU somewhere, symbol of a short-lived phase of cooperativeness between Britain, France and Germany. In short, there is a little something for everyone here, nationalists and cosmopolitans, pacifists and militants.

The Walloon monument service have also made a clear effort to paint a many-sided picture, whether they did so for pedagogical or commercial reasons. Probably both. The museum does some decent historical background explaining; there are the necessary displays of weaponry including little videos showing their operation, which no doubt stir different sentiments in different visitors; there are various films on the different sites that show the cruelty of war but also, through their choice of music, invite heroism and admiration; there are moving archaeological finds of individual items found on soldiers’ dead bodies…

One striking point though: in a somewhat insincere attempt at reconciling all the different viewpoints of past and present visitors, the concluding display in the museum tells us that although many nations have warred over Waterloo and tried to make it their own, in the end it really only belongs to one place: Wallonia. How about this for a pacifying conclusion to an exhibition about war, in a country torn apart by Flemish and Walloon nationalists?

So do these commemorations have many faces? Or just two faces?

Janus is the two-faced god, the god of beginnings and endings; but also, appropriately, the god of war and peace, and the god of journeys. Perhaps he is also the god of people who travel to places of war.

A Belgian friend commented on the commemorations at Passchendaele: ‘All these people, these politicians go to Passchendaele to say “never again”. But they don’t mean it’.

A Janus-head has two faces, but also two mouths. One is used at commemorations. It shouts ‘never again’. Meanwhile, the other mouth whispers new commands.

 

 

Photos by HG and AG, 30 July 2017.

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‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.

UBL01-P326N312-largeVieuxDoelen

Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
622px-Eaton%u2019s_College_Street_Store_Toronto_-_ca._1930

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.

 

The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.

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Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted an eighteenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward one century, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.

idapfeifferaquarel

Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.

dauthagepfeifferfull

Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.

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Carriages in the railway age

The last few weeks, I have been looking at weird objects in Britain’s National Railway Museum. There were games. There were hot-water bottles. There were candle-holders that you could take with you on the train, pin onto the fabric of your chair, and light up right there. And before I make it sound like too much of a holiday (though it was, in a way), there were also lots of books to read.

Photo by Oliver Betts.

Photo by Oliver Betts.

All this because we are trying to find out more about travellers’ experiences, from the beginnings of our railway system in the 1820s until now.

My host Dr Oli Betts already published an entertaining piece about our project. In it, he points out how much people in the early days had to get used to the railways.

Yet the other side of the story is equally interesting. Existing habits of travel continued to exist. The railways were embedded into older forms of travel.

This is illustrated by another image from Wallis’s ‘Locomotive Game’ of Railroad Adventures, the game Oli Betts describes in his blog post:

DSC04526

Photo by the author (with my apologies for the low image quality. Should have used a tripod).

In the early decades of passenger trains, it was not unusual for the body of a old-fashioned carriage, or even an entire carriage with wheels and all, to be mounted onto a railway carriage. It does not look very safe, but it provided you with the comfort, privacy and respectable appearance of your own carriage and staff. (The Eurotunnel Shuttle has started to do the same again in the twentieth century, this time with automobiles.)

Another example. A matchbox, sold as part of a portable railway reading lamp:

DSC04537

Photo by the author.

But why does this railway accessory depict a coach-and-four? An expression of nostalgia, perhaps? Anti-railway sentiment? A little bit like the acme of wedding chic nowadays is to hire an old timer with chauffeur, or indeed a horse-drawn landau?

That doesn’t quite explain it. The coach passengers are dressed in clothes contemporary to the production of the railway lamp, not pre-railway clothes. If the matchbox was indeed designed specifically to be included in this railway lamp set, then the message must be one of integration. Coaches were not overrun by the railways, but very much held their own, especially on the shorter distance. Trains and coaches coexisted peacefully in the travel imagination. The message conveyed to the user of the reading lamp was that with rail and road transport combined, you could come a long way.

If we do think there is also a degree of nostalgia or romanticism in the image, it is a longing for the country-side; and possibly a yearning for more private forms of transport that did not depend on great quantities of fellow users making the same journey: one thing railway and pre-railway travellers both detested.

More on this theme in several forthcoming articles…

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Dead Russian visits London

I find it impossible sometimes not to view the historical period I investigate through the lens of current affairs. The current debates about the place of Britain in the world, and foreigners’ place in Britain, inevitably resonate in my research, which is about European travel in the nineteenth century.

Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

Goncharov’s ship on which he circumnavigated the world: Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, I am reading Ivan Goncharov’s report of his journey around the world in the 1850s. He writes a lot about his experiences in the south of England. His observations on the languages spoken by the English still apply today. To understand the following, it is good to know that French was the language spoken throughout Europe by travellers, diplomats, merchants and other people who wanted to communicate across borders. French, not English, was the European lingua franca. And yet, Goncharov writes:

everyone who wants to go to England must willy-nilly acquaint himself [with the English language]: whoever doesn’t know it, better not go to England. Here, like something rare, they hang a sign saying, in large letters, Ici on parle français.

Like a nineteenth-century equivalent of the signs you see on hotels in some countries nowadays – ‘we speak your language’, touristic shops and hotels in Goncharov’s London could distinguish themselves by speaking the common European language. Speaking this common language was not self-understood, let alone speaking further languages.

The isolationist views that many Britons today hold are still related to the low proportion of people who understand a foreign language. To make things worse, if the UK leaves the EU it may lose access to the Erasmus programme which allows European students to spend a semester abroad and improve their linguistic skills. If we don’t pay attention, Goncharov’s observation might therefore only win in poignancy the coming years.

The reason for both those isolationist views and the relative lack of interest in foreign languages has a lot to do with the economic history of Britain. A second episode in Goncharov’s visit sheds light on this. This episode, too, may sound familiar to travellers of the present day. As Goncharov landed in England, the famous Duke of Wellington had just died. He had fought Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo and in terms of popularity could be termed the Churchill of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly therefore, Wellington merchandise was selling like hot cakes. Goncharov could not resist buying something, and so he bought

a medallion of some sort from a boy. I wanted to give him fourpence for it, but by mistake I took from my purse a ten-kopeck piece. The little boy caught up with me, threw the money at my back, screaming like a stuck pig: “No use, no use!”

Paying euro-cents instead of pennies: it is a mistake I have made myself many a time when returning to Britain after a short trip abroad… and every time there was the suspicion with the person I was paying, that I was trying to play a nasty trick on them. The reason they thought so, was of course that the British economy and the pound sterling are among the strongest of the world. And they were so in Goncharov’s days as well as our own. For instance, because of their relative wealth, the British elite of the nineteenth century could easily travel around Europe and settle down cheaply in Italy or Spain.

However, it will depend on the coming British-European negotiations for the movement of people and goods, and on the strength of British industry, whether this comfortable position will stay the same. Ironically, the very possibility to keep an isolationist outlook will depend on the intercultural communication skills of British negotiators

 

I have quoted from Klaus Goetze’s (!) English translation of The Frigate Pallada with St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1987), pp. 32 and 37.

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How the tsars started a Mexican wave

The Mexican wave: seemingly bound up with the world of modern sports and television, my work as a travel historian has recently brought me face to face with a much older instance of this clever bit of mass coordination.

Souffreau, stadium audience, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

Bram Souffreau, a stadium audience (photographed in 2007). Wikimedia Commons.

The past few weeks of UEFA competition have seen the Mexican wave do its round of the stadiums again. This year, the UEFA even turned the wave into a symbol for respectful football. Such spectacles of human coordination always do nicely on a TV screen. It seems indeed that you need the technology, the crowds, and the entertainment focus of modern televised sports for the wave to work at all. And so, according to popular lore (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary), human waves started to be observed at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Others have seen the phenomenon slightly earlier, in North-American college football, but this does not alter the story much. However, no one, to my knowledge, has as yet dug up the much deeper, much older history of the Mexican Wave.

That history goes back at least to the early nineteenth century, and I recently caught a glimpse of it in the most unlikely of places: in a manuscript that I was examining in the stables of a quiet country house which used to belong to one of the wealthiest and most reclusive aristocrats of the Low Countries.

 Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst

Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst, Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam (oil on canvas, 1829)

Her name was Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam. She preferred spending time on her estate, eschewed most forms of social entertainment except music, and died long before the invention of association football and newsreels. So how did she come to write about the Mexican wave?

It happened on a journey in 1825, though not to Mexico. Marie Cornélie accompanied a Dutch princely delegation on a state visit to the tsars’ court in Saint Petersburg. In Russia, she was shown around several charitable institutions funded by the tsarina, where the pupils demonstrated their skill and industry. One such visit ended in an enormous, colonnaded hall where all the pupils had gathered to present themselves:

at our approach, the double doors swung open and the young persons, arranged by class, the little ones in front, from both sides of the hall dropped a curtsy together, like ears swaying in a field of wheat. it was not without some awkwardness that I returned this greeting, aware of all the eyes that were fixed on us at that moment.

Evidently, the visual pleasure of this coordinated wave movement, performed by human beings, was already realized one and a half century before the 1986 waves that we normally read about. But equally evident are the differences that distinguish the Russian wave as seen by Marie Cornélie in 1825, from the Mexican waves seen in stadiums today.

In the first place, the context of her Russian wave was not sports, but education. Secondly, the milieu in which it took place was not a broadly popular one, but consisted of aristocratic ladies.

Yet most importantly, the wave Marie Cornélie was treated to, was not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. It had been carefully orchestrated by the teachers of the educational institution she was visiting. It aimed to show the school’s success in raising well-behaved, disciplined young ladies.

In that sense, the wave was akin to a military parade, although it wore a more friendly and welcoming face. This welcoming face played a role in a second aim we can expect the institution’s directors to have had: to persuade their wealthy visitors to leave a donation. We could therefore call this wave of 1825 a ‘pr wave’, or a charity wave.

That brings us back to the UEFA, and their request to share waves on twitter for their Respect Campaign. So far, this request has mostly attracted rehearsed bits of action. But, seeing that the wave may be older than we thought, has it not changed for the better by abolishing the separation between audience and spectacle that made Marie Cornélie feel awkward two centuries years ago?

Is what makes it so wonderful today not the very fact that it springs from a spontaneous decision by spectators to make themselves part of the spectacle, by bursting forth from a ‘curtsied’ position into full-body swing?

The original diaries, in French, of Marie Cornélie’s journey are property of A. Graf Solms Sonnenwalde. A Dutch-language edition has been prepared by Aafke Brunt as Marie Cornélie. Dagboek van haar reis naar het hof van Sint-Petersburg 1824-1825 (Amsterdam, 2003).

An earlier version of this post appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters.

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How To Be a Good Tourist

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, on flickr.

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, published on flickr.

The European holiday season has started, and, with it, the season of sight-seeing and snapshots.

On recent holidays, it struck me how many tourists take photos of famous monuments, of works of art or of landscapes, instead of looking at them.

This week, I came across a marvellous example. It was in an article on the Ghent Altarpiece, a famous set of religious paintings dating from the fifteenth century (local name Het Lam Gods, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck). Every year, thousands of visitors flock together in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral to see it. Or do they?

The altarpiece itself has been sitting in one of the chapels in the back of the church for the past few decades. (At the moment of writing, it is being treated for conservation elsewhere.) But immediately upon entering the church, visitors encounter a life-size copy of the work. It is this copy in front of which tourists linger the longest.

One wonders whether a certain confusion about possibly having reached their destination already plays a role here. Anyhow, according to the article I read, tourists stay with the reproduction longer than with the original because it is the version they are allowed to take photos of.

It is easy to be dismissive of this kind of behaviour, and perhaps with some ground, too: a photo taken of a painting will never be as good as either the original (which the photographer paid little attention to) or the professional reproductions (which they did not buy). The photographer missed their one opportunity to see a stunning work of art in its full size, its most flamboyant colours, its moving texture, and its original setting – in this case the very church it was designed for. From now on, it will only be a small rectangle on a screen again, or a pixelated print in an album.

Nevertheless, such dismissal also serves to emphasise status differences: who knows best how to enjoy art?

And anyway, it is more interesting to try and understand the photo tourist than to be annoyed by them. So: why might taking a photo be the most important thing to do for some when faced with a famous sight? So far, I have come across two important reasons:

  1. Many people find it important to have some sort of evidence that they themselves have in actual fact been present at this or that famous location and seen the famous object. Especially an amateurish photo is probably an asset rather than a hindrance in providing such evidence.
  2. Taking a photo is a way of engaging with a place. Because, okay, we have arrived in this church: now what? We’ve established the painting is there; now do we walk away again? Ah, we are supposed to look at it? Just stand and look? What is that, looking – what does one actually do? What I mean is that it may take an upbringing in a specific milieu to become comfortable with the kind of behaviour that museum curators, church sextons and other cultural hosts expect of their guests. Enjoying a static image can be hard. What do you do with your eyes, with your hands, and what should you be thinking about? Photography then becomes a way of knowing what to do with yourself.

I am curious to find out about other people’s experiences with (non-art) touristic photography.

Pierre François de Noter, 'Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent', 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

In this nineteenth-century view on sixteenth-century church-going (so before the days of photography), the famous altarpiece does not command much direct attention either, which is odd in the nineteenth-century nationalist context of art-historical pride. Painting by Pierre François de Noter, ‘Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent’, 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

 

Want to know more about the interesting behaviour of tourists? Read Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (London, 1976).

The article on the Altarpiece appeared in a book on the collective memory of the Low Countries: Wessel Krul, ‘Het Lam Gods’, in Jo Tollebeek and Henk te Velde (ed.), Het geheugen van de Lage Landen (Rekkem, 2009), 172-9.