Put ten people in a museum gallery with one object, and they’ll all react differently to it. One object, ten different preconceived notions of what it represents. One artifact, ten separate opinions about its meaning for current and future generations. One thing, multiple responses. And really, that’s a good thing. Multiple interpretations of a single object add layers to its history and narrative. Museums have even developed programs centered around the idea of finding new, creative ways for visitors to interact with objects. Often these include multimedia displays, artistic workshops, and special guided tours.

But what happens when visitors interact with an object that may prove harmful to the object itself? Museums attempt to mitigate this possibility with security measures: display cases are locked, exposed objects are surrounded by stantions, invigilators periodically patrol galleries, alarm systems and CCTV cameras are installed. These methods only prove sufficient in controllable environments, however. What does one do in the case of an object–or monument or heritage site–that is completely exposed to its visitors and the elements?

The Great Wall of China was built in the 14th Century during the Ming dynasty as protection against northern invaders. It stretches from Gansu Province in the west to the Bo Hai Sea in the east, though its expanse is not continuous. Several areas of the Wall have been eroded away, or simply have not been adequately located. And despite popular belief, it is not visible from space.

A popular activity for Great Wall tourists is to carve names and messages into the Wall’s rough stones. Graffiti is rampant all over the Wall, but it seems to be concentrated (at least from my own observations) in the watch towers. The messages people may write are different, but everyone who carves his or her name reacts to the Wall in the same manner: it is an object through which one can be immortalized, just as it has been.

This has caused significant destruction to the Wall itself. Imagine removing a Ming dynasty vase from its display case and visitors scrawling their names all over it. Most people would be appalled. Yet the Great Wall seems a different object simply by nature of its exposure and expanse. Why do people react differently to museum objects rather than heritage sites? We are socially trained to behave according to specific mores in museums; why do heritage sites fail to have the same effect? The Guardian published this article, which states that the Chinese authorities are planning to introduce prepared areas where tourists can graffiti the Wall, either physically or through multimedia. Cynically, I do not believe this will make much of a difference; I imagine that the next generation (or even the current) of tourists will be enticed to graffiti the areas of the Wall now deemed “off-limits”.

Assuming this is an uphill battle that can never be won, is it necessary to prevent tourists from interacting with the Wall via graffiti after all? Should we give in to the inevitability of vandalism and instead focus on creating the same inherent social training via heritage site visits as we do in museums? After all, until attitudes are changed, behaviors will remain much the same.

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