Last October I attended a (very good) conflict archaeology conference at Glasgow University. One of the speakers talked about ‘dark tourism’. If, like me, this is a concept you’ve never heard of, it’s apparently the practice of visiting sites such as battlefields or graveyards “motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.” Intrigued by this new concept, I asked around and found that most there resented the negative association of ‘dark tourism’ as a morbid, ghoulish activity. Many Americans there told me that they had been brought up visiting Civil War battlefields and that was what had inspired them to become conflict archaeologists. Personally, I too pains to visit as many of the sites, battlefields and graveyards included, connected to PhD subject, not only for the historical insight this provided, but because, for events nearly 300 years ago (as my PhD was), such visits were the closest I could get to being in that time. I found that, like the archaeologists I spoke to at the conference, I felt a little insulted that I would visit such sites out of morbid curiosity. I like to think I have more appreciation for the discipline of history and that studying armies and conflict has given me a respect for soldiers that would make any kind of morbid motivation beneath me. However, I did wonder about tourism that targets only the graves of VC recipients in the Commonwealth Cemeteries in Flanders, the display of bones in the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the addition of, admittedly necessary, cloakrooms, toilets and fire-escape signs to places such as Dachau and Auschwitz.
So, I’m posing the question – where does professional interest in sites associated with death end and morbid curiosity begin? Is there a professional – public divide? Is ‘dark tourism’ a myth because those whose profession involves graves and sites of death approach them with respect, while the display of Cambodian bones and sanitised facilities at former concentration camps, for example, create the disrespectful, ghoulish element that justifies the epithet of ‘dark tourism’? Are the displays of piles of hair cut from the victims of concentration camps aiding education and understanding, or feeding a morbid need for horror?
I’d be interested in your thoughts.
By Dr Victoria Henshaw, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
 A.V. Seaton, ‘Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2:4, 1996, pp.234-244.