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Should Tourism Ask More Questions Than It Answers?

Traveling to places where not much remains.
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The National September 11 Memorial Museum. (Photo: tanenhaus/Flickr)

The National September 11 Memorial Museum. (Photo: tanenhaus/Flickr)

A certain kind of traveling is devoted to the past. One goes to places that no longer exist; one visits the sites of structures long ago demolished or destroyed. This kind of negative tourism takes seriously the residue left by history, even when there are no remnants in the present.

I realized last summer how many of my own travels are inspired by this kind of tourism. I was standing near the reconstructed earthworks of Fort Raleigh in Dare County, North Carolina, when I thought about the sort of places I most like to visit. I say that I was standing near the fort not because I cannot remember exactly where I was standing, but because the exact location of the fort and its surrounding settlement is unknown.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, there are many ghost towns: little communities that thrived in the 18th century, but which now exist only in newspaper archives and land records.

We know for certain that Sir Walter Raleigh funded three expeditions from England to the Outer Banks: the first, in 1584, ended in failure and the colonists returned to England; the second, in 1585, was also a failure, though the men built a small military fort before being rescued by Sir Francis Drake on his way home to England from the Caribbean; the third, in 1587, was the most spectacular failure of them all, when more than 100 colonists disappeared entirely, leaving behind only the letters “CRO” carved into a tree and the word “CROATOAN” carved into a wooden post.

The Lost Colony, as the settlement on Roanoke Island came to be known, is just that: all was lost; nothing remains. Yes, a few artifacts have been recovered over the years—axe heads, a well, pottery shards, gunflints, a few coins, and a signet ring scattered widely around Roanoke Island—but the geography of the Lost Colony remains as mysterious as the fate of its colonists.

And that is, of course, why I was visiting. Negative tourism is the sort I most like. The past is always mostly mysterious to us, and I love when it refuses to pretend otherwise. I drove and drove and drove down the East Coast to see a fort that we know existed though we have no idea where. I went hundreds of miles to be confronted by questions of travel for which there are no answers.

I do the same thing sometimes in the county where I live. On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, there are many ghost towns: little communities that thrived in the 18th century, but which now exist only in newspaper archives and land records. There is York, the first county seat, which flourished from 1681 until 1710, but which disappeared entirely. Bricks are sometimes turned over by farmers near Skipton Creek, and they are assumed to be part of York, but its exact location, like Fort Raleigh, is unknown.

Another town, listed on the rent rolls of Lord Baltimore, was called Dover. For years as a child I drove on Dover Street and Dover Road and occasionally crossed Dover Bridge without ever wondering about the source of their name. But the town of Dover, which had hoped to become the capital of the Eastern Shore and whose wharves and warehouses were once filled with tobacco and shipping steamers, vanished entirely by 1790.

I’ve gone looking for remnants of Dover and York and other local ghost towns like them, but there is nothing to be found: a few eroding bricks from old foundations, stands of daffodils that bloom every spring ignorant of the structures that occasioned them, the occasional wrought-iron fence protecting a few erased gravestones. I don’t know how to describe these expeditions except as negative tourism, going looking for what you know no longer exists.

I have been thinking of these ghost towns and the colony that was lost because of the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. It is a museum deliberately trying to take the place of negative tourism: Where there is nothing, the towers having fallen all those years ago, the museum offers something, exhibits and artifacts, photographs and narratives, even a gift ship.

Funerary art is its own discipline, its literalism and symbolism debated by art historians and psychologists alike. The National September 11 Memorial Museum has itself been criticized according to these terms, with survivors and scholars both debating the 110,000-square-foot museum that opened last week.

But what would it have meant to leave the space unfilled, to have let the memorial stand alone without an explanatory museum? Sometimes the educative competes with the empathetic, and what we seek to teach undermines what we might have felt. There are museums around the world, at sites of tragedy in almost every nation, but there are also places of negative tourism: where the loss isn’t described, but felt; the erasure is not only suggested, but allowed to happen over and over again.

The tourists will come no matter what. Perhaps, though, our tourism could ask more questions and live with fewer answers.