The Historian as Tourist

(This is an excerpted and modified version of an essay that first appeared in a newsletter of the Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies, Fall 2016. The full essay is here:

Tourists try to get to know the places and people they visit, but from short stays they usually only remember a few informational tidbits. Tourists desire authentic experiences, but, since such encounters come with the real investments of time and money, they often settle for activities that entertain, sometimes by visiting places that stir up their imaginations about the past. In the end, what tourists learn on their visits is not entirely wrong, but also not quite right.

Historians are like tourists. We remain outsiders, foreigners, never entirely at one with our subjects. We cannot quite know what went on in the place and time of our studies no matter how many visits we pay to the sources. The opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between expresses the sentiment: “The Past is a foreign county; they do things differently there.” David Lowenthal took up the observation in The Past is a Foreign Country. My own experience as a visitor residing in Barcelona over the course of a year’s academic sabbatical heightened my sensitivity to this problem.

Barcelona’s “medieval grandeur,” tourist guides tell us, “left the city with one of the most impressive and varied Gothic building legacies in all Europe.” Of course that is correct, sort of….

Most of the ten million annual visitors to Barcelona spend time in the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic quarter. In truth, some remnants of Barcelona’s Roman and medieval heritage are visible there. Visitors take an emotional interest in what they see more than a historical one. They are drawn into narrow winding cobbled streets that guidebooks explain have taken the names of important medieval saints like Ramon of Penyafort, lordly medieval families like the Montcadas, and medieval craft guilds like the argenters, carders, and teixidors.

Any short list of Barcelona’s most visited sites include the “gothic monuments” – the Cathedral dedicated to the martyr-saint Eulalia and the churches of Santa Maria del Mar and Santa Maria del Pi. Few visitors know by name the Palau Episcopal, Saló del Tinell, the Casa Padellàs, and the complex of other buildings surrounding the Plaç del Rei, but as they walk past those places they accept it as the truth of the moment that they are imbibing some part of Catalonia’s medieval heritage.

What tourists who take a stroll through the Barri Gòtic do not learn – and in my experience they do not want to learn despite the opportunities to do so – is that the medieval presented to them is fantasy, something made real as a result of a variety of memory-enhancing actions. The streets of the Gothic quarter appear old, but only because they are regularly re-cobbled. The new cobblestones represent oldness. The names of Barcelona’s streets have also changed over the years, in keeping with how tourists and locals wish to envision the place. Even some of the most obviously medieval architecture is not quite what it seems. The famous Pont de Bisbe, for example, is the invention of the architect Joan Rubió i Bellver, designed and built in 1928 to evoke the medieval and, by doing so, attract tourists.

A view from the Career del Bisbe

The most sensational example of purposeful medievalist rebuilding is the façade of Barcelona’s cathedral, which looks medieval but is not (a fact that guidebooks overlook). Two architects in the years around 1900 gave the cathedral a facelift in the fashion of popular French Gothic churches since, from their perspective, the real medieval of the cathedral’s original Catalan Gothic was much too plain to attract attention. The architects, Josep Oriol Mestres and August Font i Carreras, along with a group of intellectuals and elites that included Antoni Gaudí, read the crumbling medieval building stock around them as a rich foundation upon which to promote Catalan distinctiveness. They made explicit the need to address the perceptions of visitors to Barcelona participating in the tourist boom of that time. The cathedral’s do-over required some creative fibbing for the purpose of enhancing Catalanism and enhancing tourist experience.

The Basilica of Santa María del Mar, perhaps because it is a burned-out earthquake-damaged shell of what it was in its fourteenth-century, is a splendid example of an evocative cavern, ready for visitors’ imaginations to dress it up as fits their expectations.

An experience at the Monestir Sant Pau del Camp puts a fine point on the difference between the seductive pseudo-past and the hard-to-sell real thing. The Romanesque structure of the monastic church, and the embellishments upon it that date back to the Visigoths, make it by far the oldest building in Barcelona (discounting the unearthed ruins of Roman Barcino). Sant Pau monastery is a lovely little thing to see, and its location in the Raval, less than a ten-minute walk from the heart of the Barri Gòtic, makes it barely a drunkard’s sidestep from the bars packed with tourists. And yet, the attendant at the entrance confirmed for me what books on monastic architecture have reported: “ningú ve aquí” – nobody comes here!

What we have left in Barcelona is an infrastructure that we have learned to imagine as medieval.

What holds for Barcelona also applies to the branding of the medieval past elsewhere in Catalonia. I could load up on examples here. The walls of Besalù, the monasteries of Ripoll and Poblet, Sant Cugat, and Sant Pere de Rodes, the castles of Quermançó and Cardona are hardly what they were centuries ago. But they get sold to local, regional, and international tourists as markers of medieval heritage. Quermançó castle holds special interest because Salvador Dalí made it central to his own nostalgia for the medieval weird and wild. He talked of turning it into a giant pipe organ, of drawing visitors to see elephants in the dungeon, but he mostly used it in his paintings as a sign that the past is irreconcilable to the present unless dressed in mystery and half-truth.

I’ll offer more examples in my next post, because I don’t want to cloud things up too much right now. My main points here are these: 1) the experience of historians, the practice of historical inquiry, is analogous to what tourists do because historians, like tourists, can’t fully know the places and peoples we want to study, and 2) historians are like everybody else in the sense that they sometimes ignore reality because the fiction is more fun or more useful.

Tourists, under the constraints of time and more open to a quick encounter than to deep knowledge, take advantage of what is on offer to make the most of their present circumstances. Historians do the same. We want to produce accurate pictures of the past, but we also participate in the production and reception of pasts made productive for the present, pasts that are creatively engineered to take a stand for, or against, present circumstances. Sometimes the circumstance is a practical one, as for example when a historian in early career needs to publish a paper (even if it is not yet ready) because a promotion depends upon it. Sometimes the circumstance is an excuse to advance a political position. I’ll offer some examples of that later on.

What to do with this admission that historians are not perfect receptacles of knowledge of the past and that the past is not always a compliant subject? As much as I would like to end with a clever aphorism about the power of awareness as a precursor to insight, nothing suitable comes to mind. I’ll offer instead a little bit of family truth. When on some holiday excursion, my family sometimes prefers that I turn off the part of me that grumbles and corrects upon being confronted with an invented or overly imaginative reconstruction of the past. The serious historian in me is not who they want alongside them when they merely want to enjoy some time taking in the scene. Sometimes I’m happy to do as they ask, willing enough to be carried away with them by the make believe I know I should resist.

One thought

  1. Great post! The section on Barcelona Cathedral reminds me of the Gothic Revival cathedrals present in Montreal, QC, specifically Notre Dame Basilica. The original 17th century church was redesigned in the 19th century to make the original church look more “medieval” and European. It seems that no matter the time period, medieval or modern, the past is always a tool for people to use to make political, religious, or economic statements. Hardly a coincidence that the Basilica’s renovations came near a time when the Catholic Church tightened its grip on Canada. In the case of Barcelona, hardly coincidental that these changes came during a century of nationalism and colonization, as well as near the decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


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