Cultural Tourism in America: The Quest for What It Means to Be “American”


The word ‘monument’ comes from the Latin term monitor, which means “to signify all things which call to mind the memory of some subject to those absent from this place or time” and is defined as “something erected in memory of a person, event, etc. as a building, pillar or statue.”[1]Monuments are made to honor the past and to pay homage to those who society should continue to remember beyond their time. By examining who or what people choose to memorialize, you can tell a lot about what the values or beliefs a culture may have. For this reason, monuments can carry political and social implications in how an audience may interpret them. “The monument expresses the power and sense of society that gives it meaning, and at the same time obscures competing claims for authority and meaning. Designed to be permanent, the actual monument, changes constantly as it renegotiates ideals, defining the past to affect the present and future.”[2]Many factors contribute to the interpretation of a statue and what it may or may not symbolize. The geographical positioning of a statue affects the way an audience perceives it. For example, a statue of Robert E. Lee may be received differently in a town in the South compared to a Northern city. Monuments are physical objects that we then place value and emotion on. Since historical events, upon retrospective examination, can be viewed as controversial, the monuments honoring them can create controversy as well. According to Nietzsche, “a ‘monumental’ view of the past, a particular kind of consciousness instantiated in the physical stone of monuments, represents “a belief in the coherence and continuity of what is great in all ages, it is a protest against the change of generations.”[3]This relationship between history and a nation show the connection that people have with whatever is being memorialized and how they view and choose to remember it.

Not only do these monuments symbolize a time in history for individuals in society, but they also join in the creation of a collective cultural heritage of a nation. The people and events of the past that a nation or region chooses to celebrate contributes greatly to their culture and demonstrates how they interpret and view their past and present heritage. For this very reason, millions of Americans and international tourists, travel each year to these historical sites and monuments to discover their own personal heritage, American heritage or see a culture vastly different from their own. “Monuments are important, because people want to see them, and when that quest is realized actually or virtually, monuments become social agents.”[4]These monuments are considered social agents when people wish to visit them and see them for themselves. The process of traveling to them and experiencing them, create notions of personhood and history that society places value on. Monuments are surrounded by movement–people travel to visit them, those that visit move through and around them, rituals, protests, all occur in front of or near them. The idea of monuments being connected to societal movement relates to cultural tourism. Cultural tourism is defined as,

the very nature of traveling in order to understand and become familiar with way of life and history of a specific location accompanied by a range of cultural factors which can be presented in the context of tourism, these factors may include the food, entertainment, architecture, drink, hand crafted and manufactured products or every element representing characteristics of way of life in a particular destination.[5]

These very significant artifacts and monuments help the individual to form and create their own version of their cultural history and to better understand a national history. A nation’s heritage is formed through the collective understanding of the masses of society as to what it is defined as. There are many facets and versions of a story and of history and for this reason there are many different ways that a monument can connect with an audience and represent various things, therefore, creating different meanings from one person to another.

We see this in the events of Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. With the political climate at an all time tumultuous level with the recent election of President Donald Trump to office, tensions arose over the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee built in 1924. The statue shows the Confederate general on horseback, wielding a weapon and assumed to be headed into battle. The statue itself is not physically offensive, it is the man who it represents and who it was designed for that the contention arose from. With the Civil War nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years behind us, should we really be paying homage to a man that led an army whose entire battle cry and belief was the dissemination of the Union? Should we preserve and honor a man who fought to keep slavery a major artery of the South? These questions are still being contented in present day, but the majority of the opinions are leaning towards no. There are reasons that we memorialize an individual. Martin Luther King’s monument in Washington D.C. was erected to celebrate a man who led thousands of African America citizens in the fight for civil rights. He was a leader on one of the most changed paths in United States history and for this reason we honor him. But a man who represents ideals that our nation no longer, or ever truly wanted to believe in, why put a plaque on that name? There are two sides to this: first, there are those that feel that this is a true representation of our history and that it would be unethical to destroy something that was created in the past, and then there are those that hear this argument and point out the fact that a lot of these Confederate statues were built nearly fifty years after the Civil War ended. In the early 1900s, during the time of Jim Crow, these statues were seen as a form of enforcing and demonstrating white supremacy.[6]The events that occurred in Charlottesville, further demonstrate this reality given the fact that the group on the side that opposed the removal of the statues were neo-Nazi’s leading a white supremacy movement. The physical statue of Robert E. Lee demonstrates a time when the Confederates wished to overturn the balance and power of the Union and to create a new nation that would be governed by a white plantation aristocracy that existed since the creation of the colonies. The statue represents more than just the physical appearance of Robert E. Lee but the power and place that he came from and stood for. A dark era within the history of the United States that many acknowledge but do not feel is right to be memorialized.[7]The desire to understand and express American heritage is an idea as old as the nation itself and with the technological advancements seen within society, access to these monuments became increasingly easier.

After the Second World War, tourism boomed. Given the new advancements in technology and the financial prosperity that many experienced, the ability to travel and see different places around the United States became incredibly accessible. “Since that time, tourism has proved many times over to be one the most powerful economic, social, cultural, eco-logical and political forces in the world today.”[8]The creation of this new industry, sparked growing interest in pursuing that age old question of what it is to truly be “American.” This quest is as old as the times of Manifest Destiny. History naturally shaped and continues to contributes to how we define “American.” As Henry Nash Smith discusses in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol & Myth, we see that this desire to define one’s heritage began at the start of the nation and continues to be a presence in modern society.

Men of Thomas Jefferson’s day emphasized freedom and republicanism as the defining characteristics of American society; the definitions of later thinkers stressed the cosmopolitan blending of a hundred peoples into one…but one of the most persistent generalizations concerning American life and character is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward.[9]

This idea of Manifest Destiny and a society being drawn from their homes out of pure curiosity is still seen in modern society. Despite our nation being fully populated from coast to coast and the idea of the frontier a notion of the past, Americans continue to be pioneers and find new ways to further exploration and the definition of “the American.”

The establishment of the railroad, as discussed in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s, Railroad Space and Time, demonstrates how a new form of transportation not only changed how people moved from one place to another, but it also redefined the idea of space and time, suggesting that it was the “annihilation of space and time” in total. For the first time ever a given distance that would normally take a given amount of time to travel was completely turned on its head and changed, this distance was now obtainable in a much faster timeframe. The railroad knows only the point of birth and of destination and the places in between are lost among the travel.[10]This space in-between is a moving landscape as Mitchell Schwarzer discusses, “the moving landscape differs as well from the ordinary landscape. It is not a placer where we all live, work and interact… the moving landscape is a foremost produced zone.”[11]The complete change in space and time was the consequence and result of the railroad. We see this in the creation of a unified time system. Prior to the railroad, towns and regions all ran on their own separate time, when the railroad started to deliver people from one town to the next, the need for a standardized time and time zones emerged.[12]

The establishment of the New Deal by Franklin Roosevelt during the 1930s, created an explosion in infrastructure in the United States. Infrastructure in America typically takes on the name of people and not necessarily the place where the structure exists, for example the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey to New York up the Hudson River from Downtown Manhattan. This focus on naming infrastructure after people stressed the creation of public works for the people, by the people and for citizens to be proud of them. By dedicating these bridges, highways, and other structures to people it personified them and made them more than a space. Similar to how monuments take on the memory of the person that they symbolize or represent these structures became additional ways of showing and promoting American history and heritage. This original pride that infrastructure created after the New Deal, quickly diminished. Today, America has a deteriorating infrastructure system, with structures declining at a faster rate than they are being replaced. In the podcast by 99% Invisible, “Public Works: Rethinking America’s Transportation Infrastructure,” Henry Petroski discussed how money and the federal gas tax play a major role in the funding opportunities for American infrastructure. In today’s society, people value and show far more pride for their personal home or driveway over highways and national infrastructure. For this reason, there is less of an ambition to develop policy that would maintain and create better, longer-lasting and more attractive infrastructure, similar to other countries. This demonstrates how ideals can change throughout history. During the time of the New Deal, Americans were proud of the bridges that were being built and put a lot of thought into the aesthetic of them and other structures. Today, people are far less worried or bothered by how a bridge may look and, in many ways, take these forms of infrastructure for granted. By way of taxes, we are all part owners of the federal infrastructure and because of this we should want to be proud of it and what it represents.[13]

After the creation of railroads, came the automobile and eventually the national highway system. The creation of the automobile satisfied “a real need for transportation–a need as basic as food, clothing and shelter–but argues that this need has changed as the social and spatial patterns of American culture have changed.”[14]This new form of transport allowed for an even easier way to gain access to areas that many could not reach prior to this. It, in many ways, opened a new frontier. Pretty soon, the United States was a nation of drivers and with this transportation revolution, came an incredible expansion of access. People were able to reach places that they previously had only heard of before. It was economical and possible to go on vacation to areas far away. The eventual introduction of airplanes and air travel furthered the transportation revolution and only accelerated the time and space metamorphosis that the railroad started. This increase in transportation availability and opportunities caused a major spike in tourism. The growth of tourism sparked a new aspect to the idea of the American, sites became historical and national parks became destinations. Going on vacation used to be only be a primarily elite pastime, left only to the nations wealthiest groups. With the introduction of the automobile, it became readily available for the middle class to take part in. The car changed the nature of traveling, “they could travel at their own pace, move around from place to place, wander off the beaten track, and even enjoy the trip to one’s destination.”[15]This ability to meander to ones destination made it possible to make multiple stops along the way, which was beneficial for these monuments and historical locations that could be seen as a stop on the way to various places. The creation of the tourism industry not only created economic benefits but also gave local populations an opportunity to be proud of their unique heritage and to have the chance to share it with others, developing the idea of cultural heritage on both a local and national level.

An area’s historical identity and cultural heritage is created by that town, city, or nation. This can be seen in the example of the Rocky Balboa statue in Philadelphia. This statue, although completely constructed after a fictional character, has now weaved its way into the cultural heritage of Philadelphia and the suburbs around it. Despite its fictional foundation, the city continues to rally behind Rocky, believing that it is a metaphor for hope and a symbol that “greatness can come out of this city” as well as an artistic representation of the hopes and dreams of Philly. It speaks to the white working class individual, who historically populated the city, further contributing to their cultural heritage. As one of the city’s most famous pieces of public art, the statue sees thousands of tourists each year. During Super Bowl LII, in 2018, the statue was the site of celebration for many fans after the Philadelphia Eagle’s victory. This is an example of the social consequences that statues can create and how they contribute to tourism and heritage as well. An entire city can rally behind a statue of a fictional man who they believe embodies the city’s goals and aspirations.[16]

This national quest for cultural heritage that can be found within the history that monuments preserve is aided in the development of transportation technology that created better access to these locations to allow more people to explore these ideas of the past, present and future. Monuments preserve the past but help to shape the ideals that should remain engrained in the present society. Just as it was in the times of the frontier, there will always be a desire in the American spirit to continue to search for the true meaning of what it means to be an American and what aspects of society we can look and study in hopes of creating a better understanding of what this may be. The two-hundred-year old idea of Manifest Destiny continues to beat in the hearts of American people, whether in the same way that Smith was referring to, or a more modern version, Americans still seek lands and adventures beyond where they currently stand in hopes of finding what it truly means to be “American.”

[1]Hamilton, Annette. “Monuments and memory.” Continuum 3, no. 1 (1990): 101-114.

[2]Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin. Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade.(University of Chicago, 2003), 5.

[3]Levinson, Sanford. Written in stone: Public monuments in changing societies. Duke University Press, 1998.

[4]Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin. Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade.(University of Chicago, 2003), 5.

[5]Mousavi, Sina, Naciye Doratli Seyed, Seyed Nima Mousavi, and Fereshte Moradiahari. “„Defining Cultural Tourism.“.” In U International Conference on Civil, Architecture and Sustainable Development, pp. 1-2.

[6]Winberry, John J. “” Lest We Forget”: The Confederate monument and the Southern townscape.” Southeastern Geographer 23, no. 2 (1983): 107-121.

[7]Fortin, Jacey. “The Statue at the Center of Charlottesville’s Storm.” The New York Times (2017).

[8]Timothy, Dallen J., and Stephen W. Boyd. “Heritage tourism in the 21st century: Valued traditions and new perspectives.” Journal of heritage tourism 1, no. 1 (2006): 1-16.

[9]Smith, Henry Nash. “Virgin land; the American West as symbol and myth.” (1950).

[10]Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Railroad space and railroad time.” New German Critique 14 (1978): 31-40.

[11]Schwarzer, Mitchell. “The moving landscape.” Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade (2003): 83-102.

[12]Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Railroad space and railroad time.” New German Critique 14 (1978): 31-40.

[13]99% Invisible. Public Works: Rethinking America’s Transportation Infrastructure. 2016

[14]David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein. The Automobile and American Culture. (University of Michigan, 1980) 90.

[15]Weiss, Thomas. “Tourism in America before World War II.” The Journal of Economic History 64, no. 2 (2004): 289-327.

[16]Visit Philadelphia. “The Rocky Statue and the Rocky Steps.”

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