Book Review: Heritage That Hurts: Tourists in the Memoryscapes of September 11

Heritage That Hurts: Tourists in the Memoryscapes of September 11 (Heritage, Tourism & Community), Left Coast Press, 2011
Joy Sather-Wagstaff
Reviewed by Olivera Simic, Griffith University

With this innovative study, anthropologist, photographer and tourist Sather-Wagstaff adds to the growing body of work that examines 9/11 and its aftermath. The author examines a rich array of social practices that characterise tourists’ engagement with the tangible and intangible essence of “heritage that hurts”. The book adds to the important scholarly interrogations of sites that memorialize mass deaths and tragedies, such as Holocaust death camps, Cambodia’s Killing Fields and the Kigali Memorial Center in Rwanda. Sather- Wagstaff’s primary focus is on New York’s Ground Zero as site of contested meanings and evolving cultural practices. This site-in-process is fruitfully compared to other sites, including the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sather-Wagstaff’s study builds on previous works, which contemplate the effect of the tragic event such as 9/11 on their landscapes such as Tumarkin’s Traumascapes. In her work, Tumarkin also examines the grief of those who tend to and visit the sites – survivors, families and friends of victims and bystanders.

The central question that preoccupies Sather-Wagstaff in her work is how and why we are driven to visit these memorial sites. Answering that question, she emphasizes the vernacular and public character of memory spaces; spaces which are continuously negotiated, constructed, and reconstructed into meaningful landscapes. How have these places of death and tragedy become at once both private and public spaces of individual and collective mourning? The current volume focuses on how contemporary tourism plays a critical role in the construction and production of historical sites and commemorative heritage and how these processes influence and shape individual and collective identities and histories. In order to answer some of the questions she is concerned with, Sather Wagstaff employs ethnography as a key research method and the books analyses an impressive and rich data set. Through indepth interviews and a close reading of photographs and graffiti, she compares the 9/11 memorial with other sites of trauma to reveal processes by which tourists construct knowledge through performative activities.

The uniqueness of this work lies in the author foregrounding the cultural significance of tourism at 9/11 commemorative sites. Sather-Wagstaff explores the engagement of tourists with and their experiences of visual and material culture at these sites. She argues that narratives of engagement tell us a great deal about the diverse responses to “vernacular, multiple and public histories as they derive from and inform official histories” (194). Sather- Wagstaff points out that memorial sites are constructed and reconstructed into culturally meaningful landscapes through various performative activities, which are not necessarily limited to formal commemorative acts but also include tourists’ experiences and activities at memorial sites and in the aftermath of their visits.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first three chapters provide a background to the study, outline the methods and key concepts as well as provide a literature review and a cogent theoretical framework, in which this study is embedded. The author offers an extensive analytical engagement with the methodological and theoretical limitations of “dark tourism” scholarship (Foley and Lennon, 2000) and challenges its existing theoretical paradigms. Sather-Wagstaff argues that we must view tourists as critical and significant agents in the construction of memorial sites, rather than diminishing their social importance like much “dark tourism” scholarship tends to do.

The rest of the chapters explore how and why tourism is framed by scholars and cultural critics around the notions of “commodification” and “disneyfication” of tragedy (36). In her analysis Sather-Wagstaff uses rich ethnographic data based on her interviews with the visitors to commemorative sites. In her final chapter she explores the roles of photographs, souvenirs and other documentary materials in constructing and shaping these commemorative places.

Sather-Wagstaff argues that photographs and souvenirs from trips enable tourists to “revisit and reinterpret their travel experience”, serving as physical evidence of sites experienced and seen (172). In this chapter, she draws upon scholars such as Benjamin, Sontag and Kugelmass.

Heritage That Hurts is one of the many narrative analyses of “history in the making” that shape the tragic events and aftermath of 9/11 (194). The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of a new culture of individual and public memorialization, as it challenges the lines between memory, history and various practices of commemoration.

It acknowledges tourists as participatory agents, who are essential in the direct or indirect economic and cultural support of heritage sites, and, thus, crucial in ensuring “their existence in time, space and memory” (78). The book will be of use to students and scholars of anthropology, death studies and history, but also to those broadly interested in the contested questions of commemorialization and “commodification” of death and tragedy.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Foley Malcolm and John Lennon. Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. Hampshire: Cengage Learning EMEA, 2000.

Kugelmass, Jack. “Why We Go To Poland: Holocaust Tourism as Secular Ritual” in The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, edited by James Young (ed). Munich: Prestel-Verlag. Sontag, Susan, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977.

Tumarkin, Maria, Traumascapes: The Power and Fate of Places Transformed by Tragedy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

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