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Museums and tourism have had a longstanding relationship since museums first opened their doors to the public. But tourism has changed over the last half century. How have museums and tourism evolved together, and what does the contemporary tourist suggest about where museums are headed?


November 29, 2014

Dawn of the Perpetual Tourist


By M.W. Burns

Global tourism exploded between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, spurred by technological advancements in air transportation and the expansion of the US and world economies recovering from the Second World War. The ease with which the average person could travel by mid-century fostered the idea that the planet was a wondrous menagerie of cultural and natural sights, a collection of marvels just waiting for our arrival. For the majority of travelers these exotic places might only be seen once in a lifetime, but their popularity was enough to spark the development of standardized systems for mass-producing packaged holidays through the 70’s and 80’s.




In the 90’s a dip in tourism encouraged the development of new systems for customized travel, splitting travel options into different niches of (primarily) cultural tourism. In the past decade tourism has continued to develop rapidly into even more personalized forms, facilitated by the growth of information and communication technologies. Today tourism is the largest industry in the world catering to a wide variety of specialized interests; ecotourism, extreme tourism, spiritual tourism, agritourism, culinary tourism, geotourism, dark tourism, heritage tourism, LGBT tourism, war tourism, space tourism, virtual tourism, wildlife tourism, doom tourism, the list goes on. The transition from a modern-industrial, to a postmodern-postindustrial world has given us a more relativist perspective on cultural values. The difference between high culture and pop culture began to blur in the mid 1980’s as the hierarchy of intellectual and aesthetic value was challenged. It was argued that things should be judged on their own merits, rather than on preordained authoritarian values. All of this increased our participation in places that might have once seemed too fringe.


In many ways, the transition from prescribed packaged holidays to personalized adventures follows the developmental arc of visitor engagement in museums, both in terms of planning the visit, and the options available once visitors arrive. The trend in museums over the last two decades has been to move away from offering a passive, chronologically structured experience in favor of those that are more active, personalized and curiosity driven.


In the early days of tourism, travel itself was novel, but over time it has become something we take for granted. The very fact that travel is now routine eliminates it as a pretense to “adventure”.  Now anyplace can be a viable tourist destination.  Evidence of this can be found in the increasing popularity of the “staycation”. As it turns out the “staycation” was not simply driven by the economic decline in world markets . An analysis done by White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group found that the “staycation” was not caused by the recession of 2007 - 2008 but is part of a much longer trend beginning a decade before and continues to rise.  Greg Richards adds further support to the idea that while tourism has become more frequent, it increasingly becomes immersed in the local and the everyday. In his article Tourism Trends: Tourism, Culture and Cultural Routes, he writes “As life becomes more complex and chaotic, as we are forced to be more mobile and travel with increasing frequency, we look for holidays as a counterbalance offering a touch of normality and stability - either staying at home or traveling to the same place year in, year out.”  Richards also points out the growth of what he calls “Hybrid Tourism”, the tendency for leisure tourism to be sought within the context of our daily routines. “Leisure, tourism and work are increasingly being mixed. Pilgrimage becomes a form of tourism, tourists become pilgrims, popular culture becomes high culture, and vice versa. Holidays are becoming increasingly bound up with other activities. The number of hybrid arrangements offered will grow, e.g., hotels that merge with clinics, academies ,or museums, vacation clubs that also operate handicraft workshops, tower blocks with wellness resorts, cruise liners with temporary jobs.” 

In 2014 Whole Foods launched Whole Journeys, an experiential travel company, established to bring people closer to the places that are sources for the products they sell in stores. Their website states, “Whole Journeys provides specialized, multi-day international and domestic trips for small groups. These active adventures will focus on truly engaging guests with local cultures in ‘through-the-back-door’ experiences”. There is an obvious connection between Whole Foods’ brand and strengthening the public’s notion of the company as the “go-to” place for multicultural consumables. But there is another connection they want you to make. Whole Foods is itself a destination for multicultural experiences. It is your weekly excursion to far away places, right in your own neighborhood.


The relationship between our tendency to seek more stimulating experiences, and the highly personal and often localized way we spend our leisure time may have many influences. The news media has made our world seem more dangerous than it actually is, steering parents to keep their kids at home when they are not in school, or involved in some other organized activity. Plenty of things have come into our lives that give us reasons to not venture outside our “safe spaces”; a profusion of television and movie options, gaming systems, the personal computer and everything the Internet has to offer, not to mention what virtual reality technologies will do to separate us even further from the real. This is why the role of museums is so important, not just as places that can be highly engaging in a sea of stimulation, but because they are all about keeping us connected to the real world from which we seem slowly distracted.


Given the changes in how people are defining leisure, finding relevance, and seeking stimulating experiences with more frequency, museums should be re-thinking the long-standing relationship they have had with tourism. Museums have an opportunity, in fact a responsibility, to be more present in our lives, on our turf, among the places we go and the things we do every day. Museums have a wide-open, real world, playing field to occupy and share with the perpetual tourist, hungry for novel experience, but who may not otherwise recognize the constellation of “attractions” that surround them.

To facilitate a museum presence, integrated into the real world, we need to develop a ubiquitous museology, one designed to operate between our personal curiosity and the everyday, a museology that can account for, not only the more pronounced (historically, scientifically, culturally relevant) features of our particular location, but one that can respond to a curiosity in even the most incidental things. The most common creatures, the most mundane fixtures, the most placeless places can all be transformed into “rabbit holes” to the most amazing excursions.  

Greg Richards,(2011) “Tourism Trends: Tourism, Culture and Cultural Roots” (Consulted date Aug. 2014).

Lieven de Cauter, (2009) “Archeology of the Kick: Modern Experience Hunger”,

   Vantilt: Nijmegen (2nd edition).


Mimi Sheller and John Urry, (2004) "Tourism Modalities: Places To Play, Places In Play"

   London: Routledge.



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