Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Trinity College Dublin Tour

Trinity College Dublin is a university campus that has well and truly gone over to the other side and embraced tourism in a big way. Not only is the place crawling in tourist groups, there are also official tours. These tours are given by students and last just half an hour. Our guide gathered the twenty of us together and introduced herself as a Trinity politics and philosophy post-graduate who had just managed to spill coffee over herself.

The tour is essentially a walk around the historical architecture followed by a chance to view the centrepiece of the library's collection, The Book of Kells. It's all quite pretty and sort of historic, but it struck me that there was some serious overselling going on here.

The name of the company running the tour was Authenticity Tours. What a name! Not content with merely offering an authentic tour (as opposed to those rotten, fake tours) they are giving tours of authenticity itself, "Can't you just feel the authenticity dripping off this monument?" This issue of authenticity in the tourist experience is an interesting one and there has been quite some thinking and writing about it. A quick online survey brought me to an article by Marinus Gisolf, for example, which makes several distinctions in the types of authenticity with object related authenticity (subdivided into material, conceptual  contextual and functional authenticity), symbol related authenticity and experience related authenticity. In many ways, authenticity is the elephant in the holiday maker's hotel room with each tourist touching a different part of the quasi mythical beast. 

We stopped in front of one of the large maple trees that fill the lawn at the back of the first courtyard. and dutifully listened to a theory of there being many dead bodies buried underneath the trees and feeding their abnormal development. And here I have dutifully repeated it. A story good for the tourists.

The tour had a pervasive negative tone because the guide frequently placed herself above everything at Trinity, describing it all as a little bit crap. I'm all for criticality in a tour and breaking out of the tourist bubble in which, conversely, everything is wonderful, but the effect of this persistent cynical tone was to drain the tour of passion and, finally, purpose. I can easily imagine her complaining to her classmates about the stupid tours and tourists she has to put up with in order to be able to live in over-priced Dublin. While she had identified things to be against and to poke fun at, she had not replaced them with anything that actually interested her, nor did she find joy in the encounter with the public. I was a student once and recognise this state of mind, I could even say that this tour was an authentic cynical lefty student take on a large, historical institution. That does not excuse it, however, from the duty of engaging positively and treating the public as equals.

With the guided tour over we were then invited to take a look at The Book of Kells exhibition, also included in the ticket. Photography is not permitted within the exhibition rooms so this image from the book is one of the pages made available online. The exhibition is basically panels and videos that explain what the book is, how it was made, who made it, where it was found and so on. It reminded me of an exhibition I saw in Shanghai that was trying to authenticate a Mona Lisa style painting as an original Da Vinci and which was also 95% art history, building you up for the big event in the final room. The payback there was not enough and neither was it here in Dublin: the pages of the book are not much larger than a train timetable and just two of them are on display. Worse still, because it was near closing time and the guards wanted to get home, they abandoned the normal queuing system and let everyone pile forwards into a rugby scrum around the display case. Viewed up close, in the dim light, surrounded by an impatient, shoving tourist huddle, it was very far from a religious experience. If this original artefact was meant to be bestowed with an aura of authenticity, I'll be dammed if I could sense it in the ten seconds I was in front of it before being elbowed out the way by a family from Grimsby. There was just about enough time to compare the book with the images of it that I carried in my head, affirm that it was similar, if smaller, and then head on to the library.

The library was conspicuously old fashioned; preserved for photo ops and film shoots.

At the end of the article on authenticity and tourism there is a curious note on non-places and anti-authenticity. "It is enough to simply mention the existence of these black voids in the cultural universe." It does not go further but I rather feel non-places and tourism share a more intimate relationship. The gift shop that we were ushered into by world weary guards, must surely be just one of those non-spaces that so typically adorn and monetise cultural sites. The way tourism and consumerism are now near synonymous has led to a mushrooming of such spaces, along with the chain cafes and restaurants that are waiting just round the corner to soak up your euros. I think this phenomenon of tourism generating non-places, is something I should study a little more closely, it is always somewhat in the air but when travelling we usually focus on what is culturally specific rather than the frame which defines it.

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