Ancient interactive public art, or tourist trap?

Mary Beard has a post up on the Colossi of Memnon, which she’s visiting. From the 14th century BC, these Egyptian statues outside of Luxor were tourist attractions for Roman visitors the region. Of particular interest to her are the inscriptions by members of Hadrian’s party. She had referred to them previously as graffiti, but then realized that the poems inscribed were hardly verses that the writer could have spun off the top of her head, and it would have taken time to do the inscription. In fact, it would have taken a trained inscriber, as the scripting is done (quite nicely) in stone.

Palimpsest writing on public art is hardly unusual, even when it’s not just tagging. Parties of Romans with young emperors in them would have been notable visitors, and their inscription may have been a means of honoring the site, and those giving tours of it may have welcomed the inscription as a nice bit of proof of who had come to see it–a “Washington slept here” kind of imprint. There’s a tendency to want to track who has come to see your work–even things as transitory as web pages track visitors. Who are you, and why are you visiting?

We discuss art industries and cultural tourism as though it is a new phenomenon, but it isn’t. There are, of course, new aspects to it, but cultural tours go back a long way–and it’s not just wealthy Romans visiting Egypt. Other forms are the cultural tourism that sprang up around the relics of saints in various churches from the Byzantine Era onward through the Middle Ages, including today.