From Auschwitz, the 9/11 Memorial in New York, to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the unhappiest and most tragedy-stricken places on earth have become sites of morbid fascination. Although certainly not a new phenomenon, this billion-dollar industry is now collectively referred to as “dark tourism”. The term itself, a juxtaposition between death and the hedonistic ideas of ‘tourism’, signals the ethical issues concerning this paradoxical allure- for individuals looking to indulge their thanatological curiosity, there remains a strong desire to ignore the subject itself.

Dark Tourism- capitalism v. educating future generations
Image Sources: Port Arthur ghost tour- On the hunt for Port Arthur’s ghosts, Australian Traveller ©Jonathan Wherrett

For the millions of tourists venturing to these places of disaster and atrocity, death is “neutralized” and “mediated” for mass consumerism. As such, these landscapes are often re-imaginings; narratives reframed for touristic purposes, artificially orientated, and modified in their meaning. The presence of the tourist means that this type of place-making, one that is visually consumed, is ultimately a displaced and fragmented history, re-written as a “commodity for consumption”. However, these commemorative sites also present a clear duality; they offer a didactic opportunity to contemplate and reflect on humanity, but also a ghoulish form of entertainment. Thus, although these narratives seek to evoke strong emotional responses, there is an almost trivialized passiveness that has instead become symptomatic of this touristic development.

Situated within its idyllic Australian landscape is one such tourist attraction, Port Arthur. As a large-scale penal settlement, Port Arthur documents the abhorrent systems of convict incarceration during the 19th century and the subsequent attempts at eradicating these ‘memories’. The end of ‘convictism’ in Tasmania marked a new era of moral and political progress, and so, the physical remains of the site were demolished, whilst the former prison site was renamed as Carnarvon. As the first Australian heritage site to be funded and preserved in such a publicly-recognized manner, Port Arthur was thereby implied as having historical value. However, whilst the removal of these “blots on the landscape” referenced a literal and metaphorical eradication of the island’s harrowing past, it also permeated a sense of denial – one that remains transparent today. In this regard, there is perhaps a poignant irony to this restorative care: the maintenance of the sweeping lawns and military cottages simultaneously acknowledge and deny the past, and is ultimately, an aestheticized symbol of convictism.

Furthermore, there is a disquieting contradiction between the site’s idealized image of “rustic contentment” and its dire history of punishment and exile. And yet, what once was described as “hell on earth”, now stands as a captivating romanticization of suffering; the architectural elegance of the ruins and the bucolic scenery, an intimation of modern tourism. This transformation of convict ruins to a tourist destination is often interpreted as a disconnect from the past; a form of cultural amnesia. That is, certain tourist programmes are perceived as “trivializers and parasitic feeders upon the real sufferings of real men in the real past”. And Port Arthur is certainly no different. From the ‘Escape From Port Arthur Tour’, ‘Port Arthur Ghost Tour’, to the ‘Paranormal Investigation Experience’, the lingering shame of this era has been packaged and reduced to mere ‘ghost tours’.

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Port Arthur in the landscape. Port Arthur and Female Factory lure extra visitors, The Mercury. ©Poon Wai Nang
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Port Arthur Memorial Garden ©Elzbenz, Wikimedia Commons
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Port Arthur Separate Prison interior ©Lc95, Wikimedia Commons
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Port Arthur, Tasmania ©Atlas Obscura

In 1996, the events of the Port Arthur massacre inspired a journalistic eagerness to attribute this horror to an ‘inherent evil’. However, these landscapes of death are not atavistically malevolent.

Although they are of a sad and brutal essence, they are ultimately places of human essence. And as such, they speak to our fear, our pain, and our empathy. Unlike the theatricality imbued within the celebrated penal ruins, the Port Arthur Memorial Garden does not seek to sensationalize the tragedy. Instead, the garden offers a secluded repose for quiet contemplation. Here, the simplicity of these images and symbols – the 35 gold leaves submerged in the Reflective Pool, representative of the fallen victims, and the pine cross at the rear end of the garden – is a statement of undisguised, pure loss. Similarly, the shell of the Broad Arrow Café, the site of 20 of the deaths, serves as a ‘living’ reminder of that day; an evocation of the past that can never be truly realized through a plaque or a photograph.

Port Arthur is just one of the many which pose a difficult question of whether retention of these sites ultimately glorifies inhumanity, or instead warns future generations. In a post-modernity, which selectively deconstructs meanings, practitioners are challenged to accommodate contemporary connotations- tangible and intangible – within such ethically-difficult sites. Ultimately, however, these places of dark tourism teach us what it means to be human. Through meaningful negotiations with a devastating tragedy, they invite us to reflect on humanity; past, present, and future. Every tourist, in some way or another, engages with dark tourism. And so, whilst museums may offer a safely accessible means to history, for visitors, these dark tourism landscapes emotionally connect in a way that is “to feel the past”; a feeling and understanding that can never be recreated behind glass.

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Image Sources: Reflective Pool, Port Arthur Memorial Garden ©Travel Notes

Frew, Elspeth A. “Interpretation of a sensitive heritage site: the Port Arthur Memorial Garden, Tasmania”.
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Lennon, Jane. “Port Arthur, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia: convict prison islands in the Antipodes”. In William Logan and Keir Reeves, Places of Pain and Shame, London, New York: Routledge. 2009.

Martini,Annaclaudia and Dorina Maria Buda. “Dark tourism andaffect: framing places of death and disaster”.
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 Current Issues in Tourism 23, no. 6 (2020): 679-692. DOI: 10.1080/13683500.2018.1518972

Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.

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