Visiting “dark tourism” sites like Holocaust museums creates motivation for social change

CHAMPAGNE, Ill. — It can be a poignant moment to visit a “dark tourism” site – a museum that documents some of humanity’s worst atrocities. However, this raw emotion can inspire visitors to make positive changes. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveal that visitors to Holocaust museums are motivated to make a difference.

For the study, university faculty members sent a recruitment email and survey to 1,000 adults who visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois, in the spring of 2021. Of the 85 people who responded, 39 agreed to participate in an interview. The researchers asked them if they had seen five specific collections, including the permanent exhibition on the Holocaust and the temporary exhibitions on women’s rights and apartheid.

Study participants also saw and talked about a photo that represented their thoughts and emotions when viewing the collections. Participants then discussed any social activism they engaged in after their visit. The results were surprising.

“I expected a change, but not at this level,” said Joelle Soulard, first author of the study, professor of recreation, sport and tourism, in a university press release. “They had strong experiences and undertook meaningful activities. It was heartwarming to see how people connected to the testimonies of survivors because of similar experiences with hate.

Black tourism can “trigger self-reflection”

Holocaust survivors founded the museum in response to a neo-Nazi group’s desire to stage a march in Skokie in the late 1970s. The museum, which is the third largest of its kind in the world, accommodates approximately 130,000 visitors per year. Exhibits include interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors telling their stories and more than 20,000 artifacts donated by Midwesterners.

“This museum is designed – from the entrance of visitors until the end – to trigger self-reflection, to guide the traveler so that he can digest the emotions associated with the exhibitions”, notes Soulard. “The final objective is for the traveler to become a committed actor in his community. When they see something wrong, they get up.

The researchers wrote in the study that a sense of pain and injustice elicited by exposures “can lead to collective positive emotions, such as being included in a community that understands itself because of this shared experience with… hatred”.

Attendees say the experience inspired them to get involved in anti-racism projects, with one visitor even coming up with a strategy to help her daughter deal with racist taunts from a bully. Some have observed the disturbing parallels between the social and political climates of pre-WWII Europe and the United States, with an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric, racist propaganda and the killings of black Americans.

Learn from the present and the past

Participants also shared the impact of current societal issues on their families. They feel there is a need for museum exhibits related to ongoing human rights issues, such as discrimination against Asian Americans and blacks in the Jim Crow South.

The study also found that war-focused museums can provoke anger towards the government. A handful of study participants condemned the US government for turning away Jewish immigrants who sought asylum from the Nazis during World War II.

“The museum is designed to inspire hope and act as a facilitator of social mobilization,” says Soulard. “These tourism experiences can be designed in a way that drives change. But it’s important that information is presented in a way that also respects visitors as critical thinkers by showing different sides of an issue.

The study is published in the Travel Research Journal.