Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2001
Tom Edensor Tourists at the Taj: Performance and Meaning at a Symbolic Site Routledge, 1998. 223 pp.; 9 b/w ills. Cloth $25.99 (0415167132)

With recent works such as Lucy Lippard’s On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place (New York: The New Press, 1999), the intersection between the academic discipline of art history and the study of tourism has received increased attention from art historians and art critics. One of the roles of art history within the cultural practice of tourism is, for example, to establish and authenticate a canon of monuments that serves as a resource for tourism as well as to provide the etiquette of behavior that includes gazing and photographing. In the view of this, it is regrettable that the majority of art historians concentrate on the past and seem to forget that the study of monuments can go beyond their historical original context. A work that can serve as an excellent springboard for considering touristic practice around historical sites is Tourists at the Taj by the British Cultural Studies lecturer Tim Edensor.

Edensor’s book is the outcome of a highly interesting research project carried out over the course of three years. Drawing from hundreds of interviews with foreign and domestic tourists and from his observation of tourist behavior, Edensor analyzes the relationship between visitors and the Taj Mahal as a symbolic site. In doing so, he espouses the “notion of a progressive sense of place, which disavows the idea that places have some essential identity” (200). Meaning is constructed by the visitors according to whether they come as Muslim pilgrims with the Taj as their final destination, perform as dutiful, camera-toting tourists, or whether they are Hindu pilgrims, who drop by at the Taj on their way to another sacred site.

In the Introduction, Edensor establishes three points that run as a thread through his entire book. First, tourist spaces are constructed in a way that political, spiritual, cultural or national identities can be imagined and expressed. Second, tourist sites are embedded in imagined geographies of a global scale. And third, touristic practices of gazing and walking can be described by the metaphor of performance, with the stage defined as the performative space in which the tourists move.

Chapter 2, “Constructing Tourist Space,” is of particular interest to the art historian, as it contains a useful section on representations of space and place (13-19). Here, Edensor draws together theoretical ideas from a large number of scholars on tourism and globalization about the symbols, images, signs, and narratives that “fuel the commodification and consumption of tourist sites” (13). An important point Edensor that considers in this context is the emphasis on visual representation, at the expense of tactile or olfactory representations. Another section deals with different spatial networks that can constitute the frame within which tourists see the site colonial, sacred, or national space.

Chapter 3 introduces useful vocabulary, that is, the distinction between “enclavic tourist space” and “heterogeneous tourist space.” The former describes the environmental bubble of a resort and/or a fully orchestrated package tour, while the latter consists of space that is often frequented by individual tourists and backpackers, but not exclusively dedicated to tourism. Tourist performances, of course, vary with the respective spaces in which they are staged.

“Narratives of the Taj Mahal” is probably the most substantial and interesting chapter, demonstrating the numerous and often contrasting and competing notions that can be spun around a site or sight. Colonial narratives that are carried forth by the neo-colonial practice of tourism see the Taj Mahal as the most romantic building in an India that is framed as exotic and Oriental. As such, the Taj has become an institutionalized part of every India trip. Nationalist narratives can be divided into secular and Hindu fundamentalist: the secular narrative promotes the Taj Mahal as an outstanding achievement and a signifier for the brilliance of Indian civilization. The Hindu fundamentalists purport that the Taj’s “true story” is not tied to the Mughals, and therefore not to India’s Muslims; rather, the Taj is a Hindu temple in disguise. (Here communalism rears its ugly head.) Muslim narratives revolve around the Taj Mahal as a pilgrimage site, as the main place of worship for the local Muslims, or as a symbol for the loss of Muslim power since the demise of the Mughals. Other narratives include that of economic significance for the locals, of power, of aesthetics, and of the Taj as a signifier of ideal love (the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is said to have built this enormous tomb for his beloved wife who died giving birth to their thirteenth child). This model of multiple narratives can be usefully applied to many different monuments and sites of art historical and touristic interest, from the urban fabric of Byzantine-turned-Ottoman-turned-Republican-cum-tourist magnet Istanbul to New York’s Statue of Liberty or Paris’s Eiffel Tower. In fact, sites not frequented by tourists often carry multiple meanings: art historians attach different narratives to monuments than do locals, as is evident in struggles over renovations, for instance.

Chapter 4 analyzes different touristic practices, such as walking, gazing, taking photographs, and buying souvenirs or telling stories for remembrance. Again, the sections on gazing and photographing are of particular relevance to the art historian, since they also constitute part of the professional practice of academic art history. Maybe less relevant to the art historian are the last two chapters, which consist of a discussion of tourists’ social experiences according to the spaces in which they move and of development planning and its effects on Agra. Interesting, but only briefly mentioned, is the contestation between the development planners and the Archeological Survey of India who have entirely different goals in their dealing with the Taj Mahal and the surrounding city of Agra.

Although diligently researched, well-written and full of interesting ideas, Edensor’s book suffers from two minor flaws. First, his theoretical framework is strongly built around binaries (enclavic vs. heterogeneous tourist space) that do not allow for the “fuzziness” of spatial and other categories, such as motivation for travel. Not everyone is either a package tourist or a backpacker. Where, for example, would an art historian visiting the site for personal enjoyment fit in? Second, Edensor does not make clear what his personal relationship to the Taj or to India at large is. He does not acknowledge that he is a researcher from the country that formerly colonized India and that this fact could have affected his relationship to his Indian interviewees in particular. A chapter on methodology would have been a welcome addition, indicating how Edensor selected his subjects, provided a catalogue of interview questions, and acknowledged the problem of unconsciously manipulating interviewees.

Tourists at the Taj is a must-read for all who are interested in the phenomenon of tourism, the construction of meanings around sites and sights, and/or contemporary India. While the book does not introduce grand new theories or throw new light on the practices of tourism, it is a fine study that summarizes much of the scholarship on tourism, introduces a useful vocabulary, and articulates the contested nature of sites frequented by tourists. Art historians will find it a thought-provoking work, opening new avenues for exploring not only the intersection between tourism and art history, but also the narratives about monuments.

Nina Cichocki
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis