Juan Carlos Rico

Tourism: towards the consumption of culture

Juan Carlos Rico

Tourism: towards the consumption of culture

(research project)

Part One: The Preamble

The title of this text begins with the confusing title of cultural consumption, since in reality they seem to be two opposing concepts. Even so, I stand by it because I foresee that, unfortunately, in the years to come, culture will move closer to the principles of consumption, which will mean the loss of its essence. But let's take it one step at a time

What do we mean by consumption? If we refer to its definition and meaning, it is: the action of consuming food, goods or energy and, more specifically, using and/or spending a product, good or service to meet both primary and secondary human needs. In both cases it seems to speak of a closed process, with a beginning and an end, where the food, good or energy disappears definitively.

What do we mean by culture? This term is much more complex to encompass, as is shown by its use throughout history. This is how I explained it in the book Art, science and filoso a: three related immanent processes:

At the moment, doing studies on anthropology, it has struck me that the concept of culture is something very complex, extremely permeable and totally incomprehensible to define in some way, although many other adjectives could be added. I have the impression that its meaning, which we all seem to intuit, is much more nebulous than it appears at first glance.

Cultural consumption comes to be defined as "the set of processes of appropriation and uses of products in which symbolic value prevails over use and exchange values, or where at least the latter are configured subordinate to the symbolic dimension.

For Bourdieu, the term "cultural consumption" alludes to a specific logic of economic goods, where consumption is the form of appropriation of cultural goods by social agents.

The cultural factors that influence consumer behaviour refer to customs, traditions, lifestyles, and even the territory occupied by consumers, which in some way have an impact on the way they relate to brands, products and services.

The difficulty of reconciling the two terms/concepts

In any case, and despite the lack of definition of the concept of culture, it seems clear, at least in my opinion, that the fundamental difference is that culture is an open process, which means that it grows or diminishes with the passing of time, that its reception is always different and that it never ends, and this is the important thing, it is never finished, it is unlimited. Think of music, literature and art, every time we are confronted with them we acquire new sensations and knowledge.

How can such a wide-ranging process be enclosed in something as closed as consumption, this is the fundamental question to focus on. And associated with this other very important one, which I am convinced many institutions and companies are asking themselves: Can culture be economically profitable?

A work of fiction to try to explain it

I spent a long time thinking, reading and researching about all this, but I couldn't come up with clear guidelines as to how the process could be and, encouraged by some students, I resorted to breaking away from the rigid rules of the research paths and moving on to the liberated fiction where nothing tied me down. 

Although it may seem frivolous, I had applied this flight forward in other cases, discovering that the lack of impediments and the total freedom of movement generated ideas that I would never have foreseen in the most scientific ways, and which were perfectly applicable later on in the process.

Fiction, like utopia and the recent artificial intelligence (well understood), takes you away from the problem, makes you see it from above and gives you clues that you had not observed in the forest, moving through the trees (Oceans of salt).

Evidently these are partial ideas, which do not provide a global solution, but rather broaden the hypotheses of the research. I have spoken a lot in different universities about the relationship between fiction and research, as both can feed off each other, and I encourage young researchers not to be prejudiced in this respect, especially when they are standing on high walls that are difficult to jump over.

Travelling: the problem statement

It seems important to me to talk about the subject of travel, since they are the vanguard of cultural consumption, they are beginning to apply it and are showing us, still timidly, what consumption applied to all fields of culture could be like in a few years' time. This is how I stated the problem in my blog: TRAVEL

Undoubtedly, it is a great advance that more and more people can travel the length and breadth of the world and have the pleasure of getting to know other landscapes, other ways of life, in short, other cultures, with all that learning and tolerance entails.

Unfortunately, however, it is beginning to be seen that the result is quite different: deterioration of natural environments, closure of monuments due to the impossibility of maintaining their proper conservation and, what is more worrying, the trivialisation of culture in all its aspects, reduced to images for mobile phones and mere souvenirs for the living room bookshelf.  They say that there are people who have been to the bar downstairs and when they talk about it, it seems as if they have come from India, and others, when they come from India, it seems as if they have just arrived from the bar downstairs. Lately, I only come across the latter.

Part Two: Cultural consumption: spatial and technical issues

An unavoidable problem

Lately we have seen many articles and publications on the problems that mass tourism is bringing about, caused by many parameters: increased economic level, globalisation, ease of transport, etc., which, in principle, is a good sign of the elimination of elitism in this field, although, we must not deceive ourselves, it is still only the privileged classes and the upper middle classes who participate in this activity, except in the latest plans of Chinese society.

The problem has arisen as always: society has been caught unawares by something that has been predicted since the last third of the last century.

Curiously, the first interventions came from the world of philosophy and sociology, with two specific characteristics:

Recent visits to and analysis of the Forums in Rome, the Forbidden City in Beijing and Santa Soa in Istanbul have brought me to the forefront of reflection on the way we teach heritage and art, an issue that has been of fundamental concern to me in my research work, as has been reflected in many texts, although focused specifically on museums, but I believe applicable to the field of culture on both a theoretical and practical level.

But I am not interested in the analysis of the causes, which, as I have already indicated, is already being studied; what I am interested in is to study the consequences from a pragmatic point of view, which does not mean that I have the solutions, but simply new information that complements the causes and which can bring us closer to tackling the problem more effectively.  Technical lines of work:

1. Gauging and spaces. On the one hand, we need to solve the physical limitations of the space (at certain times it is impossible to move with the minimum space required). Closed spaces are not the same as open spaces.

2. Secondly, time, by studying the duration and breaks (sometimes not only physical), proposing the opportunity to stop at appropriate places along the route, as the studies on attention - time, etc. are not respected. The visitor must be able to plan it; he/she must be active.

3. And finally, analyse the content: which themes should be prioritised, how should they be explained, and what should be the hierarchy, since people normally have a very partial and distorted knowledge of what they are going to see, and it is important that they leave with general concepts that remain in their memory and that they can complete, if they wish, individually in their environment.

Information. Establish a basis for the visit. Teaching how to use it, the use of the internet. The autonomy of the visitor.

4. Groups and menus. With the idea of making the most of the time, programmes are designed that could be defined as: more and more in less and less, ignoring the studies of cognitive assimilation. A reflection on the experiences of the menus proposed at the beginning of the 20th century in museums should make us think: is it possible to apply them to other areas, such as the city, monuments, historical centres?

5. Cultural consumption and material consumption. Although there is no time, there is always time to shop and see shows. Obligatory stops, false folklore.

The attitude of the traveller, a sociological approach.

6. Where does the desire to see everything come from, as we have already seen in museums?

7. Testimony before enjoyment. Travelling through the eye of a camera: the verification document: selfies.

Part Three: Three Proposals Against Cultural Consumption

(LIME. Laboratory for Museographic Research and Experimentation)

1. Another way of visiting a museum: what are these institutions going to do (In search of a new typology)?

For five years, I had the enormous privilege of being able to lead a series of visits, with absolute freedom, as part of a research project. The aim was to show the building of a museum (Museo del Traje) from an architectural point of view. They were small groups as we moved around the whole building, including warehouses, restoration workshops and installations, and we had to comply with a series of rules for safety reasons. This was done outside working hours, to avoid interference. Attached is a PDF text of the lecture on this subject (Tardes de Arquitectura).

The idea was to investigate other ways of visiting a building, perhaps not directly transferable, but thought-provoking, to other fields.

Is it possible to choose, on the flexibility of the programme and time, on the limits of the public's autonomy. The possibilities of a punctual change in the visit in conjunction with specific programmes (age/knowledge).

2. On the possibilities of getting to know a city (from consuming to strolling, from photographing to observing).

I also include two lectures from our research at LIME, (Another city and Culture and art as a social tool), where we try to reflect, from different points of view, different proposals made by different teams of students from different universities and countries: the city as an object, as a support and as an exhibition container.

3. In front of a monument and a historic centre (The integration of the parts)

It is extremely interesting to see how the visitor accepts the integration of different periods in monuments and historic city centres without any fear, while paradoxically demanding that the monuments not be touched and, even less, that they be coordinated with contemporary architecture. What is the reason for this contradictory attitude? It is an issue of great concern to us in the research project.

Final thought: What can we do?

Regardless of their possible future suitability (only time will confirm this), these experiments aim to open up new ways to prevent tourism from falling into this drift of mere consumption, to which it seems inexorably doomed, and learning to travel from being reduced to a series of objects on the shelf.

It is a very complex problem to which all those involved should dedicate all our efforts, in order to try to recover the richness and breadth of CULTURE with a capital C, because without it we will become nothing, a simple image lost in the memory of a mobile phone.



Juan Carlos Rico holds a PhD in Architecture from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, is an Art Historian from the Faculty of History of the University of Salamanca, Sociologist and Philosopher from the UNED. He is currently studying social anthropology. Museum curator He coordinates a multidisciplinary team for the research of the exhibition event and its relationship with space, which has been reflected in various publications.

Research project 1986-2022


Thematic bibliography. Books, articles and conferences 1986-2022


In accordance with the programmes of the European Union, the ICOM (International Council of Museums) and the ILAM (Latin American Institute of Museums), he gives workshops in various European and American universities, where he is also a regular lecturer.


The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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