Should We Stop Visiting Historic Sites?

Lottery systems are one strategy used to limit inflow of guests to high-traffic sites. Willkens also notes that staggering visitation over certain times of year and letting sites “rest,” the same way paintings are shifted out of front-and-center location at museums for allotted periods of time, can help preserve these areas for future generations. Way suggests giving priority visitation access to student groups, where staff members are in place to supervise closely and model the correct behavior of moving through an older site with its own fragile ecosystem. “School groups are often under the guidance of a teacher or mentors, and so they can learn how you behave in a place like Monticello,” she says. “There’s something to be said for catering more to groups where people are under mentorship. And I say that partly because we also have to learn how to be better behaved tourists. I think one of the [pressing] issues is vandalism and lack of care.”

Recent incidents include the case of an Irish tourist in Belgium who damaged a heritage-listed statue outside of the Brussels Stock Exchange in September—which had just reopened following a $150 million restoration—as well as a number of young visitors carving markings into the Colosseum this summer. In her studies, Willkens notes she’s seen “these crazy bursts of visitors behaving badly,” oftentimes from a younger demographic in their 20s and 30s. Though she can’t say for sure what’s encouraging these acts, she believes the incidents follow a pattern of attention-seeking behavior that appears to have been spurred by social media. “A lot of it gets captured on social media. It’s like: ‘Watch me do something that I know I shouldn’t be doing!’” Willkens says. “The person who was carving their initials in the Colosseum said, ‘I didn’t realize it was this old.’ I want to say, number one, why are you there? We just have to be better caretakers. I think we’re going to see more places say no photography because they don’t want the social media aspect. They don’t want you to do a TikTok challenge on the site. It can be a security issue.”

Outside the Brussels Stock Exchange, a tourist climbed atop the lion statue, causing $19,000 in damage to the heritage-listed structure.

Photo: desperate/Getty Images

The 17th-century Barcaccia fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna was damaged in February 2015 following a soccer match.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images

The causes of some damage are simpler to single out and address, but some sites face imminent damage from climate erosion, like Maccu Picchu and the Egyptian Pyramids. Way poses the Harriet Tubman site on the Eastern Shore as an example of a landmarked setting that is “clearly” going to be largely submerged with rising water levels. “Some of that [damage to historic sites] is unavoidable, and we’re going to have to think about different ways to access or different ways to understand and interpret that landscape,” she says. Digital documentation, while not the exact same experience as visiting in person, may pose a partial solution. Willkens is well-versed in the space and feels it can create a more inclusive experience for those who may not be able to manage a challenging hike to a certain locale or go up the steps to a historic home. It could also be a game changer for those who can’t afford trips abroad to visit certain wonders of the world.

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