Byzantine At the Edge of History: Consumption of the Past At a Heritage Exhibition

ABSTRACT - During the late twentieth and early 21st centuries, we are witnessing an increasing popularity of the past that directly involves marketing, selling, and consumption of various products, services, and experiences. However, we are still missing a theoretical understanding of consumers attraction with the past. Towards this end we raise the following research questions: AWhat are the benefits consumers derive at a heritage exhibition?@ and AHow do consumers relate with the specific heritage that is represented at a heritage exhibition?@ Our goal in this endeavor is to provide a better theoretical account of how the past is consumed. To this extent, we use the theoretical background provided by Lowenthal’s (1985). In his pioneering work The Past is a Foreign Country, Lowenthal conceptualizes six major benefits that are related with people’s attraction to the past: familiarity, reaffirmation/validation, identity, guidance, enrichment, and escape.



Citation:

Athinodoros Chronis and Ronald D. Hampton (2003) ,"Byzantine At the Edge of History: Consumption of the Past At a Heritage Exhibition", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 35-36.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 35-36

BYZANTINE AT THE EDGE OF HISTORY: CONSUMPTION OF THE PAST AT A HERITAGE EXHIBITION

Athinodoros Chronis, California State University-Stanislaus, USA

Ronald D. Hampton, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA

ABSTRACT -

During the late twentieth and early 21st centuries, we are witnessing an increasing popularity of the past that directly involves marketing, selling, and consumption of various products, services, and experiences. However, we are still missing a theoretical understanding of consumers attraction with the past. Towards this end we raise the following research questions: "What are the benefits consumers derive at a heritage exhibition?" and "How do consumers relate with the specific heritage that is represented at a heritage exhibition?" Our goal in this endeavor is to provide a better theoretical account of how the past is consumed. To this extent, we use the theoretical background provided by Lowenthal’s (1985). In his pioneering work The Past is a Foreign Country, Lowenthal conceptualizes six major benefits that are related with people’s attraction to the past: familiarity, reaffirmation/validation, identity, guidance, enrichment, and escape.

Empirical data was collected during a Byzantine exhibition at the White Tower of Thessaloniki, Greece. Forty-nine interviews were conducted during the period December 2001BJanuary 2002, where the voices of 82 visitors were recorded, since all persons in a group of visitors was allowed to participate in the discussion. Interviews with visitors followed the basic premises of the phenomenological tradition (Chronis and Hampton 2002b; Husserl 1931, 1970; May 1961; Moustakas 1994; Polio, Henley, and Thompson 1997; Schmitt 1967; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989, 1990), according to which we raised a small number of rather broad questions and we left the informants lead the rest of the discussion. Examples of the questions asked are: Can you please describe what did you have in your mind during the time you were in the exhibition? What were your thoughts and feelings during the time you were in the exhibition? What was the motive to visit this exhibition? What was your reward for visiting the exhibition? What benefits did you get?

Verbal data were read and re-read in order to gain familiarity with the text (Arnould 1998), while the analysis process followed the basic steps of categorization, abstraction, comparison, dimensionalization, iteration, and refutation suggested by Spiggle (1994, 1998). Interpretation was a more abstract, synthetic, and illuminating experience of the researchers that resulted to an emergent, holistic, extra-logical insight and understanding (Spiggle 1994).

Although Lowenthal’s (1985) benefits of the past formed the basis for the analysis and interpretation of our data, we chose to divert from his six benefit categories. We did this in order to provide a closer representation of our empirical data and to avoid following a deductive approach with the risk of losing the contextual richness and the actual experiences of the consumers. Thus, in presenting our findings in this section, we included Lowenthal’s "familiarity" and "reaffirmation/validation" benefits into one category that we coded as "knowledge." Similarly, Lowenthal’s benefits of "guidance" and "enrichment" are included into the theme of "value." Furthermore, we combined Lowenthal’s benefit of "identity" with the notion of "myth of origin" that we borrow from Baudrillard (1968), in order to better express our informants assertions related with their collective ethnic identity. Finally, we enrich the previously conceived benefits of the past by the theme of 'temporality" that refers to consumers’ self-reflective experience of the non-permanence of everything, including their own lives.

Knowing the past. For many people, a visit to the Byzantine exhibition was motivated by curiosity (Stagl 1995). Visitors repeatedly affirmed that what they got out of the exhibition was "information" and "knowledge" that made it "very interesting."

Cultural identity and the Myth of Origin. To a large number of visitors, the Byzantine exhibition offered the opportunity to realize that there are remarkable similarities between life in the Byzantine years and contemporary life in modern Greece. These similarities are found in religious icons, pilgrimages and language among others. Visitors seemed to greatly appreciate the benefit of origin (Baudrillard 1968) that provides an anchoring point for their perceptions of historical continuity.

Values of the Past. Our informants expressed a conviction that the Byzantine past guides and enriches the present. Visitors were impressed by various achievements of those people and they admired what they could accomplish with the limited means they had at their hands. Identified values of the past were also projected into visitors willingness and effort to preserve them and transmit them to children.

Escape into the Past. Like other escape routes, heritage too is a free area where consumers can act out their fantasies (Cohen and Taylor 1976). This escape however is an escape in time that is a result of the anachronistic property of all antique objects (Baudrillard 1968). Our informants indicated that quite often they were transferred to the past and that this was a pre-condition in order to enjoy and "consume" the exhibition.

An Aesthetic Payoff. Quite often, aesthetics surfaced as an additional benefit valued by visitors of the exhibition. In accordance with existing models of aesthetics (Ching 1996; Wagner 2000), we find that this value encompasses not only the main objects that are exhibited, but also the architecturally impressive building that hosted the exhibition and even the surrounding environment.

Temporality. The answers we gathered from our informants include some metaphysical considerations too. More specifically, a close encounter with the past may be an opportunity for self-reflection and immersion into the temporality of all things mortal, including humans. Since everything passes and goes from this life, the "self" too will unavoidably follow the same route.

In addition to the benefits of the past identified above, we also witnessed visitors’ connection with the past, as a result of their exposure into the heritage experience. We define connection with the past as a deeper cognitive and emotional understanding of life in the past according to which someone vicariously experiences what must have been like to live in the past. Connection with heritage is an immersion experience or a revelation (Tilden 1977). The state of "what it really was like" may take the form of a mental picture or an imaginary narrative vignette that depicts a specific slice of life in the past. In fact, the notion of a narrative picture came up during our discussions with visitors in the form of "a picture of the Byzantine period," "a picture about the everyday life," and "icons of everyday life." Overall, the exhibition was characterized as one that "gives a complete picture" of the past. The intensity of "seeing" the past is fostered by visitors’ imagination that helps them "visualize" and even transfer themselves in the past, experiencing what it would be like to live there.

Our research shows that there are multiple benefits that consumers experience during their contact with the past. These benefits are embedded on existing cultural narratives that are further enriched through consumption practices. Moreover, the beneficial consumption outcomes of the past are mediated by imagination. Thus, imagination, not only moderates the relationship between consumption and identity (Schau 2000), assists consumer creativity (Giorgi 1987), and fosters consumer desire (Giorgi 1987), but it also acts as the "linking glue" for the construction of heritage vignettes. In this respect, it fills narrative gaps, illuminates scenes of the past, contributes to the completion of heritage stories, and, eventually, connects consumers with the past.

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Authors

Athinodoros Chronis, California State University-Stanislaus, USA
Ronald D. Hampton, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003



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