At Large  April 18, 2023  Danielle Vander Horst

How to be an Ethical Tourist in Archeological Sites and Museums

Credit: SWNS via Metro

 A Monet painting, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, was purposefully punched by a visitor at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The man’s actions left three large rips in the paintings canvas.

For many first-time visitors, there is a special kind of excitement that accompanies seeing a famous archaeological monument or work of art in person. The wonder of witnessing history preserved for hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years, can be intoxicating and spur the desire of getting as close as possible; to seeing every detail one can. Even as a trained archaeologist, this author can’t help but to feel the same, however, there are limits to what even the purest of intentions should be forgiven for and one should always remember that human history is a fragile thing. 

Recent summers have certainly demonstrated that there is a decent amount of bad behavior at many archaeological parks and museums. Stories about tourists smashing statues, climbing walls, and even attempting to steal pieces of historic monuments were rife across European and American news outlets last summer. One may recall the dramatic instance of an American tourist smashing two Roman statues in the Vatican after being denied an audience with the Pope last October. While this article does not intend to shame the average tourist of our world’s many cultural heritage sites, it does hope to spur some thought as to what it means to be a good visitor and, most especially, a good steward of our shared human history.

Credit: Danielle Vander Horst

Overgrown ruins in the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy. It is often difficult to maintain every aspect of archaeological parks and sometimes even nature takes over these cultural landmarks.

It should go without saying that signs, warnings, and barriers exist in museums and archaeological parks for a multitude of reasons. In the case of many museum objects, glass cases, shields, and physical obstacles in front of paintings and statues exist in order to protect objects from further deterioration and damage from both intentional and accidental actions. The very air itself can cause antique paints to oxidize and fade when left in uncontrolled environments, making encased preservation necessary. The Mona Lisa, for instance, has recently been shown recolored by digital methods, demonstrating how deteriorated her paint has become over 500 years. 

Many archaeological parks also employ the same tactics in their open-air settings. The Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia are sealed behind glass casings in order to protect the fragile frescoes painted over 2000 years ago. Such precautions are also in place to help prevent intentional or accidental damage, though plenty of instances have occurred where tourists have managed to cause severe injury to objects even with barriers in use. One young tourist in Taipei, Taiwan accidentally tripped and punched a Paolo Porpora oil painting valued at $1.5 million, and yet another tourist deliberately attacked a Monet painting in Dublin, Ireland, leaving three large rips in the 19th-century work worth $10 million.

Credit: Lucia @Viva La Vita Travel Blog

A view of the arcaeological park at Paphos, Cyprus. Barriers such as can be seen here are often used to protect both the fragile ruins and ensure visitor safety in unsafe areas.

In archaeological parks, similar problems of human-caused destruction abound though they have a large disadvantage compared to museums regarding security and accountability. Due to their open-air and often expansive nature, it is difficult to monitor and patrol every corner of many of these parks. Those with enough funding and staff can install CCTV, however, such undertakings are often too challenging for many smaller parks to implement or even large ones that do not wish to run power lines through the parks to: A) minimize the invasiveness of modern interventions on/around ancient or antique structures, and B) detract from the illusion of restoration and authenticity. Pompeii, for instance, one of the most famous and well-funded archaeological parks is without such security measures in the vast majority of the park and relies on roving tour guides and park staff to monitor tourist behavior. Guards with whistles, for instance, patrol areas close to the forum where tourists like to climb broken columns for photos; the whistles are used frequently. 

In areas that cannot be patrolled constantly, barriers, ropes, and fences are established to protect both the site and tourists. Many archaeological remains, once uncovered, are not stable enough to warrant safe visiting and require increased safety protocols even amongst those working on them. Contrary to some beliefs, archaeologists and park staff are not trying to gatekeep history or knowledge but are actively trying to preserve the remains for future generations of visitors. For those corners that are accessible, it does well to remember the fragile and transient nature of the remains of the past we still have today. Climbing walls, trying to pocket pieces of crumbling structures, or even attempting to rearrange objects and structural elements for photos (all things this author has witnessed during her work in archaeological parks), are behaviors that threaten the continued survival of our world’s heritage sites and our ability to share them.

Credit: Elizabeth Lev (via twitter).

View of the aftermath last October when a tourist at the Vatican smashed two statues after being denied an audience with the Pope.

There are also ways in which visitors themselves can help maintain and protect our collective history. Be mindful of your fellow tourists and don’t be afraid to speak up. We must all work together, field/institution professionals and tourists, to ensure that beloved sites and objects are protected and persist for generations to come. If you see someone acting poorly, say something, or if you don’t feel safe doing so, find a staff member or other working professional who can better intervene. 

There is also the matter of spreading information and knowledge about these parks and institutions to others and widening the base of people who can support and appreciate them. Restoration and preservation take time and money. Many sites can accept donations directly or, depending on one’s location and the sites in one’s area, volunteering may be an accessible way of contributing. There is no shortage of ways to be a good tourist but being so must start from a base understanding that the survival of our history is not guaranteed, and the ways through which we learn about it need to be respected and protected.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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