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Wanna Live Like Common People: On the Museumification of Space

Liza Deléon studies the various connections between territory and identity, be it through literature, spatial planning or local governance. In her article Wanna Live Like Common People, she observes how mass tourism makes us rethink our relation with cultural landscapes and explores the tools that can be used in order to maintain territorial singularities.

It is the summer of 2018: the main beach of Karnag (Brittany, France) is blooming with black crosses, planted there by the activist group Dispac’h in order to denounce real estate speculation.

Joseph Tyrrell, Carnac Stones, Brittany, France, 2017

Each cross is wearing the name of a town deemed dying. In Karnag, the housing stock is 73% holiday homes - off-season and without tourists, the town is decaying. Although it might seem trivial, the subject of holiday homes intersects with a number of territorial issues: the appropriation of the coastline by a secondary and seasonal population (most often retired and well-off) tends to raise real estate costs, driving away young assets. This outflow perpetuates the ageing process and the loss of attractiveness, dooming towns and cities to a tourism-lead industry, known for its vulnerability.[1]

Nonetheless, Dispac’h's rebuffing does not stand only on an economic argument, however serious: public outcry against mass tourism often relies on a feeling of territorial identity. Regulations such as the current resident status debated in Corsica are one example. “Tourists go home!” one can read on Dispac’h Facebook page, a fierce reminder of anti-immigration slogans from the most reactionary part of Europe - for Dispac’h is part of the Breton separatist movement: its rejection of a tourism-centered mono-industry coexists with a strong territorial identity.

Public outcry against mass tourism often relies on a feeling of territorial identity.

Brittany’s micro-phenomenon is one among many examples of the existing links between territory, identity and globalisation. Of course, the Breton coastline isn’t the only European region affected by overtourism. Barcelona is another example: absent from the global map until the Olympic Games of 1992, the city stands today as an open-air museum where impoverished locals are continuously driven farther from the center. Indeed, museumification is a double phenomenon: if it turns space into an object of preservation, it also tends to freeze functional dynamics for the sake of aesthetics. “In some prestigious historic centers (Venice, Toledo and to a lesser extent Bruges), this museumification process rose to an unprecedented scale during the last twenty years. The Venetians, for instance, observe their city transformed into a sort of Disneyland: they who live and work here feel as if an indigenous belonging to a minority culture”.[2] Thus those cities once benefiting from its massive influx of population are today suffering from success - it is no wonder local activists are asking for spatial management to return into local hands.

Cities as cultural artifacts

It may seem paradoxical, even reactionary, that in times of globalisation - a time when a growing number of people have access to global space - space itself has become a battlefield. In her article “Feeling of belonging and identity territories”, France Guerin-Pace explains that individuals are attached to a set of places (birthplace, place of family’s origins, place of residence of relatives, desired place of residence, prospective projects’ place, etc.): “all those places make up the geographic identity heritage of each person”.[3] Links between identity and territory are indeed deep and mutually constitutive - but identity remains an agitated and tense subject. The territorialisation of identity appears as a logical reaction to the broadening of horizons: if this space belongs to everybody, what makes it singular, and how can its singularity be maintained in the times of the homogenisation of space?

The territorialisation of identity appears as a logical reaction to the broadening of horizons: if this space belongs to everybody, what makes it singular, and how can its singularity be maintained in the times of the homogenisation of space?

The highlighting of territorial singularities is one answer - and for those singularities to be seen, they need to be acknowledged by the masses. Hence territorial identity wavers between the rejection of tourists and the need of their acknowledgement for the conservation of local identity. Talks about “refloklorization” - a denaturalization for some - tend to institutionalize this process: territorial stakeholders quickly realized the economic and emotional potential of territorial public recognition. Caution is needed here: it would be simplistic to belittle the institutional approach on the ground of its mercantilism. The European Metropolis of Lille (France) for instance - a suffering post-industrial city - truly found economic and identity renewal in this process, after being nominated to be a European Capital of Culture in 2004. None would be foolish enough to claim that refolklorization can not be empowering to some territories: it is certain that an influx of new populations - transient or settled - in a derelict space holds potential for a dynamic of renewal. So let us get back to the cases of Karnag and Barcelona: beneficial in small doses, destructive at its peak, how far should the push for territorial commodification go? As for all the means of consumption, “alternatives” do emerge, notably “slow tourism” and “ecotourism”. Indeed, who would still dare, to label themselves as a tourist today? Traveler, flâneur, adventurer, adoptee even - one is never just a tourist: the space we walk through has to be loved and understood in order to be appropriated.

Structural change in times of individual action

Personal awareness of cultural differences is not, in itself, a bad thing; yet it would also be simplistic to treat this subject solely as a personal choice. Research shows it is necessary to act on conflicts between dwellers and tourists at a structural level, in order to avoid historic city centers turning into scenes for touristic consumption. Urban, spatial and development planning, citizen participation and a strong public leadership are key tools in avoiding territorial museumification. Recently, an alliance of 22 European cities (Eurocities) gathered to protest against Airbnb and other such platforms which tend to turn entire neighbourhoods into temporary hostels. Similarly in March 2019, Madrid adopted a measure closing more than 10,000 short-term rental apartments in order to prevent its city center from becoming a “tourist amusement park”. The European Union also has a part to take in its own cities’ preservation: last September (2020), the European Court of Justice legitimated a French law enforcing the need for municipal authorisation for short-term rentals. This decision could lead the way for similar actions in other European cities: “It is time for a new European regulatory approach that serves first and foremost the general interest, which is for us housing access and liveability in our cities”, Paris’ mayor declared in answer. This stance is a stern reminder that it is vital for public authorities to maintain sufficient competences against the privatization of services, in order to ensure an independent decision-making process.

One should be reminded that the aim of the tourism industry is also to be of service to society, by spreading knowledge and developing territorial identity as well as local economy. The Dutch State Service for Cultural Heritage claims: “[Cultural sites] keep memories alive and give texture to our present self-image. Cultural heritage is a beacon for our identity and a source of pride for everyone”.[4] But who does the museumfication of cities ultimately serve, and what are the socio-cultural implications of the phenomenon of museumification? From conformist homogeneization to banal singularization, “museumification subverts and inverts” local cultural and economic dynamics: each city’s cultural heritage becomes common heritage, transforming our ways to inhabit our cities.[5] Hence new governance tools are needed today, in order to make sure those dynamics do not exclude locals from their own territory and identity through touristic conformity.

[1] Claire Goavec and Jean-François Hoarau, “Vulnérabilité Économique Structurelle Et Dépendance Touristique : Quels Enseignements Pour Les Petites Économies Insulaires En Développement,” Région et Développement 42, (2015): 157-188.

[2] Jean-Michel Decroly, “Tourisme et dynamiques démographiques : des relations multiples, denses et mal connues,” Espace Populations Sociétés 2,‎ (2003): 247.

[3] France Guérin-Pace, “Sentiment d'appartenance et territoires identitaires”, L'espace Géographique 35, (2006).

[4] Alexandra Mientjes, “Is Amsterdam Turning Into A Museum?” Popupcity.net, August 8, 2013.

[5] Paulette Dellios, “The Museumification of the Village : Cultural Subversion in the 21st Century,” The Culture Mandala: Bulletin of the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies 5 no. 1, (2002).