What exactly is a Living Museum?

Historical re-enactment, tribes, tradition, culture, ethnic group or cultural show; does this reflect who the modern nation is today?

An article in the online publication Tourism Update monthly magazine caught my attention yesterday; “Fresh Ideas for Selling Namibia” and being involved in outbound tourism to Southern Africa, clicked on the link to find out more. To my disappointment, the fresh idea turned out to be promoting ethnic tours.

The article states that “the trend for authentic experiential tourism continues to grow exponentially(?) worldwide, and countries like Namibia are tapping into this lucrative niche by offering tourists the opportunity to meet ethnic groups during their holidays”.

I would agree with the first part of that statement, but not the second. I must therefore declare that on a personal level, ethnic tours have zero appeal. Being the consummate professional however, I read on, hoping to learn about new types of ethnic experiences being delivered in a unique and innovative way.

I was struck by the term ‘living museum’ which is used to describe a place where tourists can connect and learn about local culture. It is also claimed they are an authentic way of presenting traditional culture. Two terms leap out at you: ‘local culture’ and ‘traditional culture’. But what do these terms mean exactly? And are they? Perhaps my viewpoint is misguided and ill-informed, but do the Kalahari San and Mafwe really still live in this way? Or do they kick off their traditional costumes and put on a pair of jeans when the tourist bus has left?

Cultural villages are not a Southern Africa phenomena, you find them in Malaysia, Taiwan, Cambodia and Australia and all, more-or-less, offering a similar tourism encounter. Traditional Taiwan moves to the beat of a drum….does modern Taiwan move to another beat? Maybe it’s in the language?  How does a cultural show reflect who a modern nation is today? What beat does traditional England move to? Is the English equivalent of an ethnic tour a Friday night on Brick Lane, watching the Changing of the Guard, or is it a theme park with all the famous buildings from history grouped together where visitors can watch traditional Morris dancers, or a highland fling, whilst elsewhere the ‘re-enactors’ play out the defining battle of the War of the Roses at Bosworth?

My reference point are the Open Air museum’s here in the UK; of which I have been fortunate enough to visit three of the best in the country; Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Chilterns Open Air Museum and Beamish, where the exhibits are shown outside authentic historic buildings, especially collections of houses, machines and gardens. Typically there are enthusiastic volunteers who sometimes dress up in costume to interact with visitors through cookery demonstrations or guided walks around the site, but most of the staff just wear modern clothes. An open-air museum can be also a living museum, but this is not necessarily the case.

Clearly a valuable piece of the destination jigsaw, but I still believe that as long as cultural tourism is dressed up and deployed in ‘traditional’ living museums, it will only appeal to first time visitors looking for a quick ‘safe’ fix of a lifestyle long gone and perhaps also perpetuating stereotypes about ethnic groups.

A follow up piece on Experiential Tourism has been written in the Tourism Update Digi-Mag

I wrote a piece on Township Tourism following a work trip to Cape Town last year. “Browse any tourism website and the same words are widely used; sustainable, projects, reality, authentic, real lives, genuine, crafts, meeting the locals, engagement, helping communities etc. We were intrigued, as what does this say about the rest of the destination? That it is all fake?”

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