Dark tourism past and present

Last Saturday, the Travel section of my Dutch newspaper, the Volkskrant, featured a short article on ‘dark tourism,’ the phenomenon of people leisurely visiting places that are reminders of death, suffering or the macabre. Examples are Auschwitz, the Anne Frank house and graveyards, but also the Body Worlds exhibitions. According to Philip Stone, director of the recently established Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR), dark tourism is increasing in popularity, something he ascribes not only to marketing but also to secularization. As churches empty, people seek other places to think about life and death, good and evil, he suggests in the article.

However, if I learned anything while writing a PhD thesis about eighteenth century anatomical collections, it is that there is nothing new about dark tourism. In seventeenth- and eighteenth century Leiden for example, the anatomical theatre and its collections were one of the biggest tourist attractions. Guides were published in Dutch, Latin,

Visitors can be seen strolling around and pointing out things to each other. The dissected body on the table is unlikely to have been there during the summer tourist season in reality, as dissections were normally only performed during the cold winter months.
Visitors can be seen strolling around and pointing out things to each other. The dissected body on the table is unlikely to have been there during the summer tourist season in reality, as dissections were normally only performed during the cold winter months.

English and French, and paying visitors could join guided tours. These visitors could of course use the opportunity to learn something about human anatomy, but they were also treated to stories relating to the exhibits, such as that of the skeleton of a woman who had been condemned to death for theft. This Catherine of Hamburg allegedly bought a length of ribbon at a market in Amsterdam, measuring from one ear to the other – a standard length. However, after the purchase, she claimed that one of her ears was nailed to the pillory in Hamburg. [1] Although visitors found stories like this one hard to believe sometimes, most of them did not seem to mind a little stretching of the truth if there was a moral lesson or just entertainment.[2]

Title page of an English visitor's catalogue to the Leiden Anatomical theatre, 1727.
Title page of an English visitor’s catalogue to the Leiden Anatomical theatre, 1727.

Yet in the course of the eighteenth century, the attraction of this kind of ‘dark tourism’ was changing, at least in the case of the Leiden anatomical collections. For example, an English visitor who described his stay in Leiden in 1775 stated that “…you must not fail to see the Anatomy-chamber”, but adds this is mainly because that is where “they preserve the money of Egypt; Pagan idols, –foreign dresses, birds from China, &c, &c.” Not a word about anatomical preparations or moral lessons.[3] This indicates that the anatomical theatre to tourists had become a cabinet of curiosities instead of a place to learn about human anatomy and morality. The curators also realized this, and from the last decades of the eighteenth century, the collections were partly handed over to other institutions, such as the newly established museum for antiquities, and the anatomical theatre slowly changed from an open-for-all public attraction into a closed teaching institution.[4]

This story about the Leiden collections shows that what is considered ‘dark’ can change over time, and that the reasons people visit these places vary. Then as now, some want to contemplate life and death or morality, others want to be entertained or learn something about the human body or human behaviour. My guess is that in order for a ‘dark tourism attraction’ to be successful in any time, visitors need to be able to relate to what is on show, or the people whose stories are told by and in that place – hence the massive success of the Anne Frank house and Body Worlds. As long as the story is a universal human one, and credible, visitors will continue to come.

[1] Uffenbach, Conrad Zacharias. Merkwürdige Reisen durch Niedersachsen, Holland und England. 3 vols. (Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1753).

[2] Knoeff, R. ‘The Visitor’s View. Early Modern Tourism and the Polyvalence of Anatomical Exhibits’, in L. Roberts (ed.), Centers and Cycles of Accumulation in and around the Netherlands during the Early Modern Period  (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2011), pp. 155-175, 166-7.

[3] Anonymous. Holland: A Jaunt to the Principal Places in That Country. London: W. Hay, 1775.

[4] M.M.A. Hendriksen, H.M. Huistra & H.G. Knoeff, ‘Recycling Anatomical Preparations’, in: S. Alberti and E. Hallam (eds.) Medical Museums, Royal College of Surgeons of England. (Order here) Also see Hendriksen, M. Aesthesis in Anatomy. Materiality and Elegance in the Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections. PhD thesis, Leiden University, 2012.

Published by mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to info@mariekehendriksen.nl or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.

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