Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Curio(us) Translocations -Site-Specific Interventions in Banglatown, London

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Curio(us) Translocations -Site-Specific Interventions in Banglatown, London

Article excerpt

Culture and tourism are destined once and for all to be together.1

All over the world now we find these 'attractions' - of little significance for the inward life of a people, but wonderfully saleable as a tourist commodity.2

THIS ESSAY SETS OUT TO INVESTIGATE a particular mode of encounter with cultural difference that is performed in a specific site of postcolonial translocation - the tourist zone. In cities with large immigrant or minority populations, enclaves that have come to be known as Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Vietnam, and Banglatown allegedly offer tourists a taste of the 'authentic' (from culinary delights to cultural practices), yet at the same time they are clearly inauthentic, 'disneyfied', 'exotic' re-inventions that are often the result of urban regeneration and cultural-planning policies. I explore how the popularity of tourist zones illustrates the fact that cultural difference sells - that it can effectively be packaged, sold, consumed - and thus functions as a commodity. This raises questions with regard to the relationships between tourists as consumers and local communities as producers of cultural experiences. Also examined are some of the negative outcomes of this process of commodification, such as cultural stereotyping, the imposition of homogeneity, and the erasure of diversity and internal differences in migrant communities. The elision of ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, and class disparities in 'multicultural' urban districts and the reductive stereotyping and labelling of all migrants as 'them', however, ironically reifies the notion of difference and reinforces categories of 'us' and 'them'. In order to explore the nature of the tourist zone as a site of postcolonial translocation and to examine in greater detail the efficacy of art's potential intervention in the workings of cultural tourism, I shall be looking at Curio, an exhibition that attempted to disrupt the tourist zone of Banglatown in London's East End in 2002. It might be useful, however, to begin with a conceptual and contextual outline of the development of cultural tourism.

Within the scope of this essay, the term 'culture' will be understood to refer primarily to "the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life" of a community, and not the "artistic and intellectual development"3 of an individual.4 More pertinently, the term 'cultural tourism' will be used to denote the following:

the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited.5

In order to explore the dynamics of the specific cultural-tourism model as proposed by Eduard Delgado - one based on "the concepts of diversity (culture and creativity), interaction (trust) and context (distinction)"6 and where community-engaged approaches work in partnership with artistic and cultural initiatives organized by urban-planning and development councils - 'culture' will also be regarded as an interactive and collaborative process and not merely as an entity that can accrue to individuals, unlike Pierre Bourdieu's notion of acquiring "cultural capital."7

Moving away from conceptual definitions of 'cultural tourism' and on to its contextual framework, a seminal phase of development occurred during the expansion of the middle class in the second half of the nineteenth century.8 This led to the opening up of 'high' culture to a larger audience, and was one of the preconditions for the first boom in the tourism industry in the aftermath of the Second Industrial Revolution. Unlike the situation obtaining in the days of the Grand Tour, cultural consumption was no longer an elitist pursuit limited to the upper classes or aristocracy, as the success of the tour operator Thomas Cook (the first to offer predominantly middle-class travellers package tours to European destinations with a 'cultural slant' since the 1860s) illustrated. …

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