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Tourists of History by Marita Sturken Review

First of all, my apologies for the long wait for this blog! It’s been quite a month– about seven hours after I posted my last blog entry, my adorable fur-baby Hopkins had a grand mal seizure. The last few weeks have been a blur of vet visits, getting used to the new routines of living with a chronically ill cat on a strict medicine schedule. Along with some new stresses at my day job, it’s been hard to find time to focus on this work. But this week I finally tackled a new book, one that I think could have tremendous impact on my work as a museum professional. While it’s been a challenge to get back into the hobby of reading and writing (especially with all my other work and projects!) this was a really interesting book to get back into. As someone who doesn’t write a lot in my day job, it’s also been a challenge getting back into the hobby of writing and making academic critiques, and while I feel this was week’s has less finesse than my last two attempts, it’s good to get back on the horse in some way. So here goes!

This week, I read Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero by Marita Sturken. Currently, Sturken is at NYU, and before she published this book in 2007 she wrote about the politicization of Vietnam memory and also the AIDS crisis. Like other books that I’ve read for this project, this text  contrast the process of official memory-making (memorial processes like the Oklahoma City memorial process and the design competition for 9/11) with casual memory and meaning-making (such as processes of consumption and the creation and purchase of kitsch objects) and also applies differing values and critiques to different forms of memory. Sturken’s overall thesis is that images and the media around 20th and 21st century tragedy portrays a politically-useful victimization and childlike symbolization; this infantilization and also economization of tragedy through the sale of kitsch-like artifacts and kitsch-like public memory sites became politically-viable in the failures of FEMA after Katrina and the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sturken phrases this relationship with events through tourist objects as part of the infrastructure that falls under the term “tourists of history” rather than “tourists of memory” to “signify that tourist subjectivity has a problematic relationship to the weight, burdens and meanings of history” (12). In her conclusion, after tackling subjects such as imagery of Oklahoma City, the trial of Timothy McVeigh, the debate over the dust of 9/11, and the polarizing memorialization process in New York City, Sturken finally theorizes that the banality of the tourism of history is that the interconnectedness of global events and of global people are lost, and that when Americans focus on ourselves as collective victims, we lose a sense of the individual.

From a museum studies perspective, there is much in this book to merit further discussion. In looking at this book, I can’t help but think of certain elements in 2018 rather than 2007 contexts, and in fact in just the eleven years since this book has been published, the whole landscape and language of cultural studies has been changed, I believe, by the internet. Her first chapter focuses on consumerism, ranging from advertising focusing on 9/11, a discussion of art versus kitch, and the ongoing consumerism of safety and defense, ranging from the proliferation of Hummers/SUVs to the crazy consumerism around duct tape in the mid-2000s that further emphasized the sense of American victimhood. The abject political gains of this sense of victimhood, for both the big defense companies and the politicians who operated these companies, is made abundantly clear, as Sturken says, “on the eve of attacking Iraq, U.s. citizens were encouraged to use consumer products to occupy the status of the victim, in other words, to inhabit the position of the potentially attacked rather than the attacker” (81). She also discusses consumerism around 9/11, including post-9/11 responsive ads (such as the Kenneth Cole’s “Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal” ads) and whether or not these ads were seen as appropriate or inappropriate.

With today’s call-out culture and with the Twitterverse, Sturken’s discussion of this debate as mediated through the cultural elites (those who could write articles for major publications and therefore had a voice) seems utterly quaint and dated. Still, the discussion of whether or not it was appropriate for certain companies to use 9/11 in marketing, and the invocation of individuals and personal stories in ads, reminded me of the discussion of how museums and cultural institutions respond to current events. For example, Sturken characterizes Kenneth Cole’s “Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal” advertisement as acceptable to society at the time because it was known widely that the company was socially-responsive; on the other hand, Madden shoe company and the Saudi government (in a goodwill campaign showing positive interactions between Saudi and US leaders to repair the reputation of the country) were seen as insincere and opportunistic ventures (66). While I wish Sturken had taken more space to discuss not only for-profits responding to this event but also non-profits (for example, the Liberty Science Center’s response to 9/11 of doing special programming only for the children of victims was really revolutionary for the time) and I really think that would have added another dimension especially in discussing consumerism, this discussion was really thought-provoking on the economics behind cultural responsiveness and the limits and appropriateness of this. One future project I am thinking of is contextualizing and comparing responses of 9/11 to contemporary tragedies; even thinking in terms of the disastrous Williamsburg commercial in the 2016 Superbowl brings to mind realities that the Twitterverse has made possible that were not possible in 2001 or even in 2007 when Sturken was writing this book.

Another area of Sturken’s work that has bearing on museum studies and my own work is her discussion of the I am Hope campaign, and indeed the particular focus on children and infantilization that Oklahoma City promoted. I had never heard of the “I am Hope” campaign, where the archivists at the Oklahoma City Memorial donated some of the many teddy bears left at the fence of the building to children in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was really thought-provoking. On one hand, it is so completely banal, and speaks to the emptiness that museum responsiveness can be. As Sturken puts it “such objects, no matter how well-intended, cannot be innocent. They invoke innocence, they sell innocence, and they promote it, but in their very circulation they participate in a culture that simplifies and reduces, that effaces political complexity” (94). Sturken characterizes what the museum professionals did as radical archives work, however, like many museum response projects of the current day, who exactly benefits from this type of project is questionable. In many ways, it is the type of response where it benefits mainly the institution, rather than the actual victims (the radical archivists feel better that their country has destroyed the children’s lives, the children who may have greater needs receive this hollow symbol). My main takeaway from this critique and discussion is when designing responsive projects, it’s important to take this type of distanced cultural critique Sturken has done in this case, questioning what our own complicity in the act is, and who benefits the most from this type of archival or public program.

Sturken’s discussion of imagery and photography (of both Oklahoma City and 9/11) was particularly meaningful to me given my own proximity to the images and meanings of 9/11. As a child growing up in New Jersey during the early 2000s, 9/11 was simultaneously very close and very far (especially from the shield of my parents, who took steps such as driving convoluted, extraneous roads to my grandparents’ house to prevent me from seeing the burning pile that replaced the buildings that were, as a twin, my namesake). Like Sturken discusses in her final chapter which focuses on the memorialization process in New York City, the scope of loss in 9/11 as well as the sheer sense of emptiness of the event (buildings and people who disappeared) resulted in much of the imagery to be focused on the first-responders and the buildings, rather than the victims. Unlike Oklahoma City, where the primary image was a firefighter carrying a dead child and thus the victim had a face and name and the scope of victimhood was so much more manageable, the primary image of 9/11 was the buildings falling in on themselves, as well as the firefighters raising the flag in the defiant Bergen Record photo that evokes Iwo Jima.  While so much of the work we do in curating images (especially in the heat of the moment and when making journalistic decisions rather than curatorial ones) is based on instincts and the heat of the moment, this discussion made me think about the ways I can curate images in the future in a way that is more aware, rather than coming from a place of emotion.

Overall Takeaways

This book was really rich in its discussion of memorial culture, and particularly it’s discourse around the museum space and community participation in the museum space through the design of the Oklahoma City memorial. However, one concern that I did have with this book that at times I felt like some of the discussions, and even indeed the assignment of kitsch, could be a little “tone policing”.  Cultural critique always runs this risk–I remember reading Baudrillard for the first time in graduate school and being horrified. While I found most of Sturken’s points to be well-placed, I did think there was some “tone policing” happening, particularly in her discussion of memorial shirts. America is a very diverse society, and while her narrative was mainly about consumerism and the things that unify us, I think she also needs to acknowledge that many groups and families are left out of the normative white, suburban, an-SUV-and-2.4-kids structure that she describes and that her work assumes is the audience. By policing other groups’ form of memory without fully understanding or commenting on the aspects of diversity, I think she runs the risk of not seeing the full picture.

A final critique I had of the book is that while I understand Sturken is extremely critical of the prison industrial complex, the connection to Oklahoma City and 9/11 through the example of McVeigh felt a little too forced. Her third chapter–“Spectacle of Death and Spectacle of Grief”–didn’t quite seem to fit in to the rest of the book, and while I felt it was valuable, probably could have been better placed in another book. Other than that chapter though, the juxtaposition of two separate events that occurred in worlds made radically different by the preceding event seemed appropriate, meaningful, and something that all cultural history professionals can benefit from engaging with.

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