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Geography of heritage - Authenticity & museumification at the example of Viking Heritage Tourism

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    Geography of heritage – Authenticity & museumification at the example of Viking Heritage Tourism


    Heritage sites have motivated people to travel in the past, as well as they still do today. It is the contemporary experience of historic places with cultural or natural importance that generates massive flows of heritage tourism (Boyd & Timothy, 2006). UNESCO has set up and rewarded a list of remarkable heritage sites that shall be preserved for present and future generations. A look on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites map reveals the diversity of different geographic spaces that are witnesses of heritage sites (UNESCO, 2014). The physical space of these heritage sites is interpreted and responded to socially in varying ways by different groups within the setting and around the world. This process then transforms bare physical spaces into heritage places that comprise meaning and have the ability to provide the visitors with authentic experiences (Thurnell-Read, 2012). Thereupon, these numerous social constructions, influences an interpretations that distinguish a place from being a bare physical space outline the importance of why we talk about the ‘geography of heritage’. Particular geographic places influence the tourist’s heritage experience. The term ‘authentic’ has been used above and shall, in the context of the geography of heritage, further be discussed and questioned, as it is widely used for marketing reasons and likewise demonstrates the connection between a geographic location and its heritage site (Boyd & Timothy, 2006). The example of Viking Heritage Tourism shall then be used to demonstrate two issues, museumification at the Viking example and how that eventually is connected to authenticity.


    The concept of authenticity has broadly been discussed, not only in tourism studies. Definitions and interpretations of the term vary extremely due to many intangible factors and perspectives. Sine Heitmann confirms this vague nature of the term and concludes that: “Most commonly, something is considered as authentic if it is made, produced or enacted by local people according to customs and traditions or if the presentation or performance has a connotation of traditional culture and origin – a sense of the genuine, real or unique, ‘made by local hands’” (Heitmann, 2011, p.45). As stated by Boyd and Timothy (2006), societies in the developed world become increasingly sophisticated in their demands for unique and unusual travel experiences. It is however questionable in how far ‘real authentic’ experiences are being supplied to the visitors and yet, whether or not they actually seek to see the real picture, or the allusive one that they want to see. Hence, perspective and interpretation matter and make the term highly intangible (Boyd & Timothy, 2006; Timothy & Ron, 2013). Nevertheless, authenticity is a current buzzword in the tourism sector, that sells really well and that triggers people to travel to certain ‘authentic’ destinations (Timothy & Ron, 2013).


    Tales, novels and Hollywood movies, have spread the word of Viking heritage. Hence, ‘the big men with the big swords’ and their bloodthirsty image, created a tourism form that has been growing since the 1970s. With this trend, new museums have been established, like the Roskilde ship museum in Denmark and at the same time, older museums have shifted their emphasis more towards Viking exhibits (Halewood & Hannam, 2001). Halewood and Hannam (2001) furthermore describe how the objects in the Viking Museums are left to make their own statement to the viewer with a minimum of interpretative intervention. Museumification thus becomes a process where history becomes memory and experience through a process of reconstruction of the past (Debary, 2004). Tourists may enter a different world and time when stepping into a museum and experience how the past might have looked like. A rich selection of historical treasures from ancient Viking times is presented. Big ships, ancient swords and old tales tell a story and create meanings and experiences for the visitors, enabling them to go back in time to the very heart of the Viking culture. It is argued that this is exactly what tourists look for nowadays, facing the current era of globalized uncertainty. Heritage tourism and the reconstruction of the past in museums give them a degree of security and stability (Halewood & Hannam, 2001). However, contrasting to the rather positive image of museums that Halewood & Hannam draw, Debary (2004) claims that museumification may also include that the past in a museum may sometimes be redefined, forgotten and even denied (Debary, 2004). Bits and pieces that a nation, region, organization etc. might not want to be identified with anymore, may be left out, or at another end, positive connotations might be embroidered. Authenticity at museums therefore has always to be critically questioned as well and should not easily be taken for granted.


    Reconstruction of Viking house (Vikingmuseum, 2014)


    Viking living quarters (Vikingmuseum, 2014)


    To conclude, geographic places embody social constructions and interpretations. Hence, their heritage sites are unique assets that create meanings and ‘authentic’ experiences to visitors. These visitors are looking for exactly these kinds of special historic reconstructions that they for example can find in museums. They are islands of security and stability to people in a fast moving globalizing world of uncertainty. Viking museums for example enable their visitors to ‘live’ Viking history. However, authenticity and museums should always be examined with a critical eye as well, as they might have been influenced by a social amnesia. The connection of museums and authenticity can be interpreted based on Halewood and Hannam (2001). Accordingly museums present icons of ‘pure’ authenticity for tourists who for example are interested in the Viking history. The commodification at museums then is a key factor in the negotiation of authenticity, as goods being sold there are often markers of the authentication process (Halewood & Hannam, 2001).



    Written by Laura Berens





    Boyd, S. W. & Timothy, D. J. (2006) Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century: Valued Traditions and New Perspectives. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 1(1), pp. 1-16.

    Debary, O. (2004) Deindustrialization and Museumification: From Exhibited Memory to Forgotten History, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 595(1), pp. 122-133.

    Halewood, C. & Hannam, K. (2001) Viking heritage tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 28(3), pp. 565-580.

    Heitmann, S. (2011) Authenticity in tourism in CABI, Wallingford, UK, pp. 45-58.

    Thurnell-Read, T. (2012) Tourism place and space, Annals of Tourism Research, 39(2), pp. 801.

    Timothy, D. J. & Ron, A. S. (2013) Understanding heritage cuisines and tourism: identity, image, authenticity, and change, Journal of Heritage Tourism, 8(2-3), pp. 99-104.

    UNESCO (2014) World Heritage Map [Online] Available from: [Accessed 02/12/2014].

    Vikingmuseum (2014) Experiences and program [Online] Available from: [Accessed 03/12/2014].

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