Edward M. Bruner. Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel

Edward M. Bruner. Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. University of Chicago Press, 2004. 312 pages, 48 halftones. $62.50 cloth, $25.00 paper.

Tracy Musacchio
Knox College

Tourism has a profound effect not only on tourists but also on the cultures visited, as heritage is adapted to the demands of tourism and the historical narrative begins, even, to be reshaped. In this volume Edward M. Bruner, a noted field anthropologist, studies the phenomenon of cultural tourism. He focuses on touristic narratives and, in his words, “the difference between a touristic and an ethnographic sensibility” (1). Bruner’s interest in cultural tourism first developed when he served as a tour guide on a trip to Indonesia. His attempts to educate the group of travelers about the phenomenon of tourism and its interactions with local cultures (for example, that the “native” dance shows they were witnessing were actually modern performances created for the tourist industry) were thwarted by the trip’s coordinator, and he was effectively fired.

Bruner divides the book into three sections, with each section further divided into three individual studies. Part One, “Storytelling Rights,” features two chapters on the Maasai (the first is co-written with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett) and one chapter on tourism in Ghana. Part Two, “Competing Stories,” features two chapters on Abraham Lincoln (the first on his historic sites, the second using Lincoln’s built-up persona to critique postmodernism) and one chapter on Masada (co-written with Phyllis Gorfain). Part Three, “Tales from the Field,” deals with Indonesia: Bali, Taman Mini, and Sumatra.

Of course, the particular topics with which Bruner deals are more in-depth, more nuanced, more complicated, and more intriguing than the above paragraph would suggest. The first chapter on Maasai “tribal” performances at Mayers Ranch in Nairobi calls into question whether the echoes of colonialism and the idea of the “noble savage” will ever be put to rest, given their perpetuation through enacted tourist performances. The second chapter inverts typical studies of tourism:  instead of typologizing tourists and studying the ways in which they interact with the cultures they visit, Bruner studies the cultures themselves by looking at three different Maasai tourist sites and the way in which they present the native culture to tourists. Through this study, Bruner comes to the startling conclusion that tourists’ perceptions are more important in developing touristic representations of culture than are the actual cultures themselves. In other words, it is more important to give tourists what they expect to see than it is to give them authenticity. The third chapter examines Elmina Castle in Ghana. Its significance to the slave trade has made it a major site for tourists, particularly African-Americans, and this has caused contention in the Ghanaian community where the gap between tourists and locals is often institutionalized.

In the second section of the book, two chapters examine the site of New Salem, the persona of Lincoln as memorialized by the tourism industry, and how the competition between scholarly and popular interpretations are reconciled and perpetuated in the creation of public history. At New Salem, what was once a commercial trading town is presented as a quaint craft center, reflecting what the interpreters choose to put forth and the tourists’ expectations. Regarding the persona of Lincoln, Bruner argues that it is more than the dichotomy between what is real and what is reproduction (rejecting the postmodern idea that the inauthentic has become the authentic). He argues for a continuity of invention and reinvention. Further, a museum such as New Salem is the perfect staging ground for his theories, as museum professionals find themselves struggling day-to-day with this historical (re)invention. Finally, Bruner shifts his attention to the Middle East and to Masada. Again, he struggles with the reconciliation of multiple narrative stories.

The issue of authenticity presents a challenge. In his struggle to define authenticity, Bruner ultimately raises a question: who determines authenticity? Although he acknowledges the difficulties inherent in creating authentic reproductions (and not simply the academic and theoretical difficulties, but also the practical difficulties that arise when faced with limited budgets and volunteer interpreters), Bruner raises issues and does not offer solutions.

In the book’s final section, the chapters are more personal. At first, Bruner uses Bali to exemplify a “touristic borderzone,” wherein tourists form a migrating population descending on a developing country to seek out a paradise that is either long gone or, in this instance, contrived as part of colonial control (17). The metaphorical border is drawn not only between the tourist and the local, but also between the tourist and the ethnographer. Bruner revisits his examination of how the indigenous people create a culture that meets the expectations of the tourist, even as it is artificially constructed. Next, Bruner deconstructs the idea of “ethnic theme parks,” where a nationality is put (or puts itself, frequently) on display for tourists (93, 211). Although this practice was decried when it first appeared at world’s fairs, parks are cropping up wherever a market exists. The political undertones are unavoidable, as certain ethnicities are downplayed or even denied by the voice of controlling power. An awkward picture of Bruner participating in a mock Yao marriage ceremony, taken by his wife, speaks volumes. The final chapter is a personal look at Bruner’s experiences doing fieldwork in Sumatra in the midst of civil war in the 50s and then returning after a long absence in the 90s.

Taken as a whole, the book does an excellent job of causing the reader to reflect on the act of tourism, on its impact, and on its meaning, both to the tourist and the toured. Taken individually, each of the chapters stands as an independent study. Bruner’s writing is accessible and highly readable, but his roots are as a scholar. Citations are included; however, the book will also satisfy a non-academic interest. Culture on Tour is thought provoking, and the reflexivity it provides on the experience of tourism will be of interest to travelers, anthropologists, and anyone interested in the idea and the social impact of tourism. Although Bruner has chosen to focus on a limited number of sites, the applicability of his study is global.

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