Saturday, November 28, 2009

Industrial Heritage and Tourism

As many fans of Industrial Archaeology and Industrial Heritage already know, the European Union has named The Ruhr Valley the Capital of Culture for 2010.  RUHR.2010 will include an ambitious program of cultural and historical events on the themes of Europe, Mythology, and Metropolis. Michigan Tech's IA faculty consider the Europ√§ische Route der Industriekultur (European Route of Industrial Heritage, ERIH) as a group of model case studies, showcasing examples of how committed communities, stakeholders, local and national governments, academics, and developers can all work together to capitalize on heritage preservation of industrial sites, monuments, and landscapes.

We established our Ph.D. program in Industrial Heritage and Archaeology because no programs in the United States pushed the academic study of industrial sites.  Unlike most colonial or ancient sites, Americans often see industrial history sites as centers of urban decay, the heart of a community's struggle for environmental justice, and/or are symbols of economic collapse and social decline.  The sites are brownfields to be remediated through least-cost methods, totally disconnected from issues of culture, identity, or any vision of the community's future.  At MTU, we believe that sites of industrial heritage are as critical as ancient or colonial places, if not more so, to a community's plan for sustainable living.  While tourism is only one part of our program, I have thoughts about this today.

The European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) is one exemplary model which we discuss with our students, critically exploring the complexities of industrial heritage preservation and redevelopment.  RUHR.2010 is an example where sites and Industriekultur become the inspirational anchors around which collaborators work from the arts, museums, sport and cultural event planning, dining, recreation, nature, reclamation and remediation.

Today's case study is an excellent example from the December 2009 issue of Passport Magazine.  Passport bills itself as "America's #1 Gay Travel Magazine."  RUHR.2010 is a program targeted at a very broad audience of potential tourists.  Passport is a great study for the students because they can examine how general preservation and heritage programming are being implemented to attract a specific set of "targeted" demographic groups to industrial-related sites.  Communities often include plans to attract heritage tourists as part of their economic and land-use plans as they enter post-industrial periods, attempting to rebuild sustainable economic and cultural activities.  GLBT tourists are a vibrant and economically valuable part of Heritage, Cultural, and Eco-Tourism sectors of the travel market, the world's largest industry.  Many academic studies reinforce this fact.  Passport Magazine published a long and beautifully-illustrated article on RUHR.2010 events.  It appears here.

The article, written by Rich Rubin, is itself an interesting case study for Industrial Heritage professionals.  Mr. Rubin is a freelance journalist who often writes about travel.  In his article, he touches on several themes of interest to communities in industrial archaeology and heritage.  I quote at length, from the original here:

For me, it’s an appropriate close to the trip, as it perfectly symbolizes the achievement of this region: to turn the industrial into a thing of beauty. To celebrate the industry by transforming it, to find new uses for the now-abandoned engines of manufacturing and to make of them something that’s more than just history. Here, in the Landscape Park, the lights glowing around me with a self-confident, low-key, and utterly appealing whimsy, the true lesson of the Ruhr region takes hold in a final and (pardon the pun) illuminating moment. This is a region that doesn’t try to imitate, that doesn’t try to best other areas at things they really do better. You won’t find the ultra-cosmopolitan nightlife of Berlin, the rollicking charms of Bavaria, or the cathedral beauties of Cologne. What you’ll find instead is something you can’t find anywhere except in the Ruhr, the creation of culture out of the industrial landscape, not imposed upon it or existing separately from it, but springing, almost organically, from this utterly inorganic setting. Backdrop and foreground both, the industry that powered this region, literally as well as figuratively, continues to power it. From a museum of light art in a former brewery to an art display in a gas tank to a rock-climbing wall in a smelter, the outline of industry is inextricably interwoven with the cultural life for which the area is becoming known.... Who knows where it will lead? Twenty years ago, only a few “crackpots” were interested in a form of travel now called eco-tourism. As the Cultural Capital year of 2010 focuses attention on this region, perhaps it will be the beginning of a new phenomenon known as Industrial Tourism. If that happens, you can bet Essen and the Ruhr will be at the forefront. This is not quaintness-on-the-Rhine territory. It’s raw, gutsy, and I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it. All it took was foresight, imagination, and determination to create a landscape of fascination out of a landscape of industry.

First, I am thrilled that Mr. Rubin's article will help dispel the common assumption that GBLT persons are not interested in industrial history, museums, and sites.  Heterosexual, male, retired engineers are not the only people who participate in this kind of tourism.  His essay will also help to raise the profile of  this very successful vision of industrial heritage in the United States.  The more urban planners, economic managers, and civic leaders see the ERIH and related sites and the manner in which they use the website to connect events, sites, and plans, the more allies we will find when we advocate this type of approach.

Mr. Rubin also falls prey to dichotomies that continue to frustrate industrial heritage professionals, however, placing industry in opposition to culture, separating power and work from the "sweetness and light" of culture and art.  In addition, Mr. Rubin is unaware that industrial tourism is as old as industrialization.  He is a journalist writing for a travel magazine and not a scholar of tourism writing for academics, so despite the minor error and his evoking of tropes in his essay, I think Mr. Rubin's essay is an excellent article and I thank him for giving me a "teachable moment" with my students. 

I look forward to following events through RUHR.2010 with my students and friends here at MTU. Several of our European colleagues and collaborators had roles in the Ruhr valley and the larger European Route of Industrial Heritage.  The ERIH website effectively links heritage sites with programming, news, and information for visitors.  I particularly enjoy the photo albums from the various sites and museums.  We will continue to present the outcomes of their work that successfully linked preservation, adaptive reuse, urban and regional planning, economic redevelopment, environmental remediation, and so many other issues that intersect in industrial heritage, issues both vexing and thrilling.

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