The Genealogy of the Tourist Gaze Part 1: Art History, Anthropology and Souvenirs

This paper presented at:The International Symposium on Society, Tourism, Education and Politics (ISSTEP) Bangkok 2013


This paper is based on a close scrutiny of the attraction of souvenirs as the material culture of tourism. Modes of tourism are continually evolving and it is in the light of the recently framed notion of “creative tourism” (Richards,2012; Richards & Wilson, 2006), and the application of Actor Network Theory (ANT) to tourism studies (Cohen, 2012) among others, that I am going to examine the genealogy of the tourist gaze. 

The central question to be addressed through this paper is what modifications that have occurred in the change to material culture under the gaze of the tourist are likely to occur to the collection of the skills involved in the process of production under the contemporary gaze of the creative tourist. To get closer to an answer we must first assess the changes that have occurred to material culture under the pressure of tourist gaze.

Tourists and other travelers have, for centuries recorded their experience of other cultures through the collection of material artifacts of the visited culture and the rendition of images. For example figure 1 below, showing an early impression, in the form of a cartographic drawing, of Ayutthaya from 1683. 


Figure 1 Alain Manesson Mallet.  Drawing of Ayutthaya, Pub. 1683 [Source The British Museum]
Figure 1 Alain Manesson Mallet. Drawing of Ayutthaya, Pub. 1683 [Source The British Museum]

This habit predates modern and contemporary tourism. Prior to the beginnings of what we recognise as modern tourism objects collected from other cultures included things large and small and can be traced back at least to the time of Alexander the Great and Aristotle (Impey, 1977, p.17).  


By the Middle Ages the 'trade' in religious relics was established and occupied the display cabinets of many wealthy collectors. Among them, was the Duc de Berry, who, unlike many of his contemporaries, extended his collection to include Eastern works of art and other curiosities. In 14th and 15th century Italy, porcelain vessels were afforded a special place in most households, partly for the belief that they could reveal poisons contained within, but also for their rarity. Like exotic timber, porcelain then also bore the signature of its origin, not just in its form and motif, but in the unique quality of the exquisite material, as the capacity to reproduce it in Europe was absent (Impey, 1977). However, unlike exotic timbers, this capacity to mark its place of origin is today reduced, with many potters around the globe producing fine porcelain. It now behoves most ceramicists, engaged in the souvenir trade, to mark the site of origin through motif, image and design. (Impey, 1977 p.20; Pearce, 1995).


With the discovery of the Americas and a sea route to India in the early 16th century, the spread and collection of Eastern goods and artifacts to Northern and Western Europe took on a different purpose. Now the importation of trade goods was accompanied by objects of natural history and curios from exotic cultures. Such was the array of exotic curios that scholars, bankers and Princes from all over Europe "scoured Lisbon for curiosities – gold jewellery from Siam, exotic woods, sea shells, parrots, textiles, drugs, amber were almost as much in demand as spice and porcelain."  (Impey, 1977, p. 55). Images of such places were also executed during this period by amateur and professional artists and draughtsmen. Examples of artefacts collected and images produced during this period and later include the following.


Figure 2 Votive plaque in terracotta. The Buddha is seated in bhumisparsa mudra on a a stepped throne base. 13thC-16thC Collection of the British Museum, Registration number 1923,1210.9
Figure 2 Votive plaque in terracotta. The Buddha is seated in bhumisparsa mudra on a a stepped throne base. 13thC-16thC Collection of the British Museum, Registration number 1923,1210.9
Figure 3 A gilded bronze balustrade terminal depicting five Nagas emerging from the mouth of a Makara. 16thC-17thC. Collection of the British Museum, Registration number 1890,0208.47
Figure 3 A gilded bronze balustrade terminal depicting five Nagas emerging from the mouth of a Makara. 16thC-17thC. Collection of the British Museum, Registration number 1890,0208.47

This period also saw the rise of botanical gardens and menageries packed with exotic flora and fauna. The influence of these expansive collections can be seen in the work of the late 15th and early 16th century Dutch artist, Albrecht Durer, who is known to have traded woodcuts for exotic curiosities (Impey ,1977.) Indeed, Durer's Rhinoceros  (fig. 4) is an elegant example of an artist's impression of an exotic animal and what it might have looked like, extracted from the description of a traveller. In his anatomical misconception, the artist has produced an image of a creature from hearsay, just as many exotic creatures are abstracted by artists and crafts people for the benefit of tourists today. 


Figure 4 Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros, a drawing and woodcut Germany, AD 1515. [Source: The British Museum]
Figure 4 Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros, a drawing and woodcut Germany, AD 1515. [Source: The British Museum]

It was approaching the middle of the 16th century that the initial formulation of the souvenir emerged in the form of an ivory chest from Ceylon (fig. 5), in which Europeans are featured in the detail. This is, perhaps, among the earliest record of a representation of European colonials in an indigenous art form made for export.  As an indigenous response to colonialism, it is an object that is attracting much scholarly interest today. The front panel of this chest points quite clearly to the power relationship of colonialism, while the central panel suggests the feasting and leisure activity of wealthy travellers that is part and parcel of tourism today. 


Figure 5 Ivory Chest carved relief, Ceylon 1541. Collection Kunstkammer Residenz-museum, Munich, Germany
Figure 5 Ivory Chest carved relief, Ceylon 1541. Collection Kunstkammer Residenz-museum, Munich, Germany

Early Modern Collecting

During the 17th century Germanic rulers began to formulate the Wunderkammer (wonder chamber), as a marker of their emplacement within the familiar environment and knowledge of the expanding world. The Wunderkammer is conventionally defined as a square windowless room that became the repository for private collections of curiosities (Alexander, 1979; Pearce, 1995). Many of the above examples were collected in this way, by scholar diplomats and other travellers 


Eventually, the sheer mass of many collections reached grand proportions and they were subsequently re-housed for the purpose of public display. This eventually led to the emergence of today's public museum and gallery system.


This period also saw the emergence of contemporary tourism, through the democratisation of travel as a result of railway development and other improvements in transportation (Urry, 1990; Shields, 1991; Ousby, 2000 and Smith, 1977). This allowed more people to view exotic objects displayed in museums, while the early form of contemporary tourism caused many former curiosities to fall into the hands of the growing middle classes and onto the mantles and walls of the bourgeois domestic environment. What the new middle classes could not own for themselves, via early duplication technologies, they could, at least, become familiar with through the agency of public museums and galleries, and through travelling expositions and freak shows. It is at this point in history, with its emphasis on the Romantic sentiments of the individual, the acquisition of status and the gathering of knowledge, where tourism and the collection of souvenirs, as artefacts of travel and tourism, properly begin.


Initially tourism set its sights on the spa and seaside towns of Britain, while the exotic destination of Italy appealed to the early eco-cultural tourist in the form of the Grand Tour (Shields, 1991; Urry, 1990). By the turn of the 19th century, with the colonial project in full swing, the Grand Tour soon expanded to include more distant lands as explorers, gentleman travellers, missionaries and amateur anthropologists engaged in the colonial project (Shields, 1991; Ousby, 1990; Pearce, 1995; and Urry, 1990).


Anthropology and Tourism

Anthropology, with its yearning for knowledge of others, is a discipline that shares the sentiments of the Romantic Grand Tourist and an historical development concurrent with contemporary tourism. Structurally, both are environmental engagements that absorb exotic cultures and places: that people develop a culture in partnership with their environment is at the heart of both engagements; and that extended periods of time are spent among exotic cultures is also common. Furthermore, the desire or imperative to record the experience, in some material form, is also shared with the contemporary tourist and more specifically the eco-cultural tourist.  


In order to illustrate the development the changes brought about to material artefacts of others cultures under the pressure of the tourist gaze and in turn demonstrate the effects of said gaze, I want to make close study of colonial Australia.


As with other geographical regions within the British Empire and trading partners of that period, in colonial Australian history, the trading of material culture is dominated by the colonial explorer, the missionary and later the anthropologist. In Australia we are indebted to many famous anthropologists, missionaries and other early collectors of Aboriginal artefacts for the richness that lines the storerooms of State and National museums and art galleries. Not withstanding the difficult ghosts of British colonialism, the artefacts collected during and just after that period have, through time, assisted in a better understanding and appreciation of Australia's indigenous cultures.             


The specific conditions relating to the trade in tourist art and souvenirs are peculiar to the condition of the tourist and, moreover, the European notion of leisure and travel that arose during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The contemporary anthropologist might argue that his or her profession is unrelated to the travel purposes of the tourist. The initial examples of tourist art and contemporary souvenirs, however, are to be discovered in the collections of early colonial anthropologists, as too, is the germ of what is now referred to as eco-cultural tourism. Like the tourist, the anthropologist spends regular and structured periods of time away from his or her conventional society and engages with a life style that is markedly different from that of the West. By far the most common practice, shared by the anthropologist and tourist, is the documentation of the site and people through the collection of material culture and images. In the collections of the material culture of other societies reside many artefacts that are, at once, ethnographic artefacts and works of art and they address the complex activity of tourism and souvenirs that challenges our notions of what art is. Just as Lippard (1999, p.4) questions the relationship between art and tourism, asking why so few artists have recognised the affinities between art and tourism, so Torgovnick (1990, p.75) has aimed a similar question at the exhibition of exotic material culture and 'primitive' art. Furthermore, it is important to discover a way to appreciate tourist art and souvenirs that overcomes the prejudices once accorded 'primitive' art and material culture, one that circumvents their common perception as cheap, tacky and kitsch and recognises the authenticity of the souvenir's unique system of visual communication, as an ever changing object, within the arena of tourism.


In 1964 Ron Berndt, renowned anthropologist from the University of Western Australia, lamented the influence of tourism and tourist kitsch on the development of Aboriginal art, stating that:

Pseudo or imitative Aboriginal art is notart: and unfortunately, it is in this  debased form, in the shape of commercially produced items for the tourist trade, that it appears to have made the strongest impression. This aspect is outside our scope in the present discussion, but we should remember that some of this material does go under the name of 'Aboriginal art', and is accepted as such.

Berndt (1964 p.73)


Berndt's quest for authenticity is typical of many anthropologists of that era and one that has featured consistently in tourism debates. Similarly, J A Tuckson, in the preceding chapter of Berndt's essentially anthropological text, draws attention to the contortions made by Aboriginal artists to satisfy the demands of such a market, writing that:

The demand from the tourist trade has also been met partially by Aboriginal artists themselves, especially through the agency of mission distribution centres. In a minor way this has modified traditional style. Missions sometimes price the artists' work on the basis of size…And to meet the current demand, the artist has now taken to shaping his bark as rectangularly as possible, so that it may be packed and transported conveniently together with others. Overencouragement of such art has tended to produce quantity rather than quality.

Tuckson, (1964 p.68)


Tuckson identifies the role of mission settlements as central to the introduction of the profit motive, noting the values by which art was subsequently promoted. But, most importantly, he recognises the significance of size and uniformity, as fundamental structural developments, in the definition of tourist art.


Further developments in Aboriginal art have seen artists dispense with traditional bark canvasses to embrace robust board and conventional canvass. For example figures 7,8 and 9 below. 


Figure 6  Yirrwalla Gunwinggu Tribe West Arnhem Land 25" x 17" [Source Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon]
Figure 6 Yirrwalla Gunwinggu Tribe West Arnhem Land 25" x 17" [Source Museum of Natural and Cultural History, University of Oregon]
Figure 7 Interior of Keringke Arts Centre, Santa Tersa, Northern Territory Australia 2005, showing souvenir production and squared paintings
Figure 7 Interior of Keringke Arts Centre, Santa Tersa, Northern Territory Australia 2005, showing souvenir production and squared paintings

While three dimensional material culture has been significantly reduced in size to a point where its function is lost (Hume, 2008). For example the boomerang below (fig. 8) is simply a fridge magnet in the shape of a boomerang with a museumifying Aboriginal motif.


Figure 8 Fridge Magnet Boomerang, 2001, 12 cm.
Figure 8 Fridge Magnet Boomerang, 2001, 12 cm.

While the introduction of silversmithing for commercial purposes among the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand is a fine of example of a change of media, relocation of motif and indeed the development of new designs.


Figure 9. Hill Tribe Silver - star earrings.
Figure 9. Hill Tribe Silver - star earrings.


In summary the collection of objects cited above and their framing as artifacts of travel is the result of a perspective informed by a number of disciplines or principles, chief among them the missionary, the anthropologist and the art historian. Such artifacts were categorised according to the principles of said disciplines and had an eventual effect on the production of such artifacts, causing certain variations in the purchased product. such as miniaturisation, change of raw material, reshaping, and relocation and embellishing of motif.

These variations led to debate regarding the authenticity of such objects, and discussion regarding the producer’s response to the tourists desires, resulting in a genuine and unique craft field, being the souvenir. More accurately these artifacts function as independent actors within an ever changing network of gazes that can be best elaborated through the following diagram. 


Table 1 showing complexities of relationships involved in the framing of crafted souvenir artifact
Table 1 showing complexities of relationships involved in the framing of crafted souvenir artifact

Here I have set the artifact/souvenir at the centre illustrating the pressures brought to bear upon it. You will notice that some arrows suggest an influence that is two way while other pressures are not reflected back and yet others clearly oppositional. I have also shown some paths in a lighter tone to suggest a wavering of influence, such as that of the missionary. 



The recent development of “creative tourism” has led to, or will lead to a shift in the shape of this network and what is passed on, or sold to the tourist. It is one that sees the tourist produce their own souvenirs and as such it is the ephemeral skills involved in the act of production that the creative tourist will collect. In this change of focus from the concrete to the ephemeral there are, on the surface at least, many benefits for the visited culture, such as the sustaining of knowledge attached to skill skills and a reduced impact on the environment. 


However, questions arising from this development is how will the act of production by the outsider effect what knowledge and skills are learned. What will be framed for the tourist experience and what will be omitted. As we have seen with souvenirs the producer responds to the desire of the tourist and adapts the end product to suit. It is my contention that similar adaptions will occur in the passing on of skills and production methods.


This type of tourist engagement in the form of experiential tourism is not new and is a forerunner to the creative tourism. It also brings with it a refined development of the tourist gaze we have traced so far. It is one that views with the intention of replication, a gaze and task formerly the domain of the host. For the majority of tourists that experience needs to be compressed into a two, or at best a four week time frame, thereby limiting the depth of what can be experienced or learned and is likely to lead to an edited version of event, much in the same way that various artifact are miniaturised as they  become souvenirs 


What then are the likely modifications to take place to the collection of ephemeral skills. Certainly there will be some streamlining of the processes due to time constraints. There is also likely to be some editing of sensitive stages of the process. For example culinary or cooking tours are arguably at the forefront of creative tourism, during which the tourist learns how to cook a particular style of food, Thai cooking is a much sought after skill by Western tourists, while I have experienced Burmese cooking classes on the Thai border, as a way to support refugees.


However, cooking is often reliant on the growing, raising and harvesting of ingredients. It is unlikely that a Western tourist will seek to experience the hunting and killing of an animal for food, given Western sensibilities that have distanced them from the production of food. While the hardship of the hunt or growing of crops will almost certainly be absent, thereby bringing into question the authenticity of the experience if that is still part of the tourist agenda.   


A more pertinent area of discussion is to do with the process of production of concrete artifacts, or self made souvenirs. Such objects do offer a greater experience than the straight forward purchase from a craft stall, or even from a workshop where the process of production can be viewed. Ultimately self made souvenirs offer a greater depth of reiterated narrative once the item is installed in the home. But it is likely to still be an edited experience and therefore a reduced narrative still that may or may not reflect an example of the visited lifestyle.


David L Hume 2013





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