This week’s visit to Red Boiling Springs, a historic mineral springs resort approximately two hours from Nashville in the Upper Cumberland region, got me thinking about heritage tourism in a new way. More specifically, it is making me consider how my experience differs whether I visit a site in a professional capacity as a historian or as a casual tourist.
As a historian, I actively seek out information from a variety of sources. I take loads of high definition photos (buildings, signs and landscapes), gather up any printed material available on site, visit the local library if time permits, and ask numerous questions of everyone I meet. Like a sponge, I soak up information and atmosphere in equal parts. I am energized by being in the field and cannot wait to get back to my desk to get to work.
The first step is always downloading the photos and picking out the best ones to share with family and friends over email and Facebook. They provide a taste of the site and my point of view – what struck me as representative, beautiful, odd and/or dramatic. The photos answer the question, in visual terms, how was your day and what were you up to? I can tell you right now that if I was in the field it was a GREAT day and that I saw something new and unexpected. Looking through the photos lets me relive the experience and be thankful for a profession that requires field work. It sure beats a desk job!
The next steps are focused on research. I typically start with the photos. My camera captures details that I miss both large and small. I return to the photos throughout the process. Then I will review the material collected at the site, read through the National Register nomination, do an Internet search – Wikipedia, site’s website, tourism material etc.. – and keyword search on library databases. Many questions will surface and a list of sources to examine in further detail will be generated. Depending on the purpose of the project, I will draft papers, reports and/or powerpoint presentations. The process from start to finish is deeply satisfying but requires a large investment in time and energy.
On reflection, I see that as a tourist I approach a historic site in a very different manner. I am a relatively passive consumer. I will read what’s put in front of me, whether that be an interpretive panel or brochure, and take a tour but will not seek out additional information. A series of related questions come to mind.
How can a historic site convert casual observers into students of history who are energized and excited by what is in front of them? What tools can help tourists engage with the place and celebrate its unique history and culture? What questions can a site ask that will encourage tourists to seek out additional information after they leave. These questions and more will be explored in coming posts.