ã 2001 Sean Gillen. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

This work was completed in part-fulfilment of an MA Tourism and Leisure. Lancaster University, UK 2000—1, and is reproduced here strictly for scholarly purposes.

Chapter four: sacred sights, pseudo-saints and the troubled tourist:

presenting the Beatles


4.1: Introduction

  In the introduction, the notion of pilgrimage was introduced as a method of spiritual renewal and escape.  It was noted however, that despite its inherent connection with emotion, when applied to tourism the pilgrimage analogy leaves emotion relatively unexplored.  To open this chapter, and in order to frame the analysis that follows, some characteristics of pilgrimage are briefly raised, highlighting the difficulty in separating its functions from that of tourism.  The analysis of the Beatles Story exhibition, and importantly the experiences of its visitors, are then presented as an example of contemporary tourism, in which emotion plays a significant part.

Initially then, for Turner and Turner, pilgrimage is as much an internal journey as spatial; taking place in a liminoid state it implies an expectation of some kind of spiritual metamorphosis through an experience that involves the leaving of one cultural, structural or cognitive point and a return and reintegration in a new condition.  The journey itself places the traveler in an ambiguous state that does not entirely reflect the conditions before, or expected state after.  Moreover, apart from a promise of transition, the journey offers potentiality, not only of ‘what is going to be’, but what ‘may be’ (1978: 1-3). (see references) All places of pilgrimage, it is argued, have one thing in common – they are places where “miracles once happened, still happen and may happen again” (1978:6).  Perhaps Turner and Turner’s most profound assertion is that at such sites, the power of an ‘unseen presence’ working through symbolic vehicles, reaches into core of the pilgrim, acting on the senses through paintings, images buildings or texts, reaching into their ‘root paradigms’, the existential domain of human existence that is beyond the cognitive:


“They reach down to the irreducible  lifestances of individuals, passing beneath conscious prehension to a fiduciary hold in what the individual senses to be axiomatic values, matters literally of life and death” 


The meaning of the place itself, Eade and Sallnow posit, is mediated through such vehicles, usually elevating the human object of the site to a higher status.  Moreover, these figures are often transformed from a timebound, historical figure into a timeless, ahistorical one, through the deliberate action of clergy (Eade and Sallnow 1991:14).  As such, their description of pilgrim sites as ‘transformation stations’ succinctly encapsulates their function.  However, their notion of these sites as ‘the stock exchanges of a religious economy’ also raises the issue of the blurred definition of what is sacred, a situation that threatens the “fragile boundary between religious devotion and workaday commerce” (1991:24) as the sacred takes on secular characteristics.

Tourism in some ways seems to reverse this, it seems, as the secular takes on the characteristics of the sacred, even if Durkheim’s opinion insists they are entirely distinct.  Writing in an era before the commercialisation of ‘fatal attraction’, Durkheim argues they are not merely distinct, but “between them there is an abyss” (1915:38). Nonetheless, Reader and Walter convincingly argue that the idea of separating the religious and secular in the analysis of tourist sights is neither viable nor desirable (1993:16), their distinctions being ‘tenuous and questionable’.  Both forms demonstrate similar characteristics often based on the exaltation of heroic or saintly figures (many of whom might have met violent death), or a quest for “something that lies outside the accustomed pattern of everyday life” (1993:9), with a concomitant benefit to self, cultural identity or social position. Although still providing an important ‘emotional outlet’ they assert, in its contemporary form pilgrimage has largely lost its association with physical hardship, in that it is regarded as ‘detrimental to a modern life’ and its orientation with gratification (1993:226-7), thus it is perhaps more associated with hedonism than spiritual renewal.

On this note, the ‘core’ emotional aspect of such travel has been marginalised in study, particularly in a neglect of the thoughts, feelings and individual motivations of the participants.  Hence, it is essential to move away from overarching narratives of pilgrimage that ascribe singular meaning to secular or sacred sights (Reader and Walter 1993).  Congruence with Eade and Sallnow (1991) can be observed here, in their central assertion that the sacred sight merely provides a ‘virtual space’, a vessel into which personal meanings, brought from their cultural origin, are poured.  Consequently, in addressing a secular pilgrim-like sight such as those offered as tourist attractions, it is essential to acknowledge the diversity of meanings and emotional responses that might be aroused.

4.2: The sanctification of the Beatles

‘The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away,

Coming to take you away.

The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away, Dying to take you away, take you away.’

(Lennon and Macartney 1967)



‘All you need is love (love is all you need)’

(Lennon and Macartney 1967)



‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love’.

(1 Corinthians 13: 13)


‘We’re more popular than Jesus now’

(John Lennon 1966)


The Beatles Story exhibition in Liverpool provides an acute example of how contemporary tourism can mirror a religious pilgrimage, in its presentation at least.  It represents a hugely significant time of social change, a time when many young people demonstrated their desire for ‘something more’ in life through fanatical adherence to radical new styles of clothing, music and behaviour; an attitude embodied for many in the Beatles.  Rather than being just another pop group, the Beatles did and still do have the aura of cultural messiahs for some: ‘they were an influence on all our lives, a cornerstone…as important as religion and politics in a lot of ways’, as expressed by one interviewee at the sight [1]  

The exhibition itself builds on such sentiment by chronicling the lives and careers of the Beatles in minute detail; their music, their backgrounds, their personal relationships, and perhaps above all, their absolute ordinariness that preceded their rise to global icons, a rise that prompted Lennon’s much decontextualised analogy with the popularity of Jesus Christ.  Beyond this, visitors are subtly encouraged to equate their own ordinariness with that of the Beatles, to see them as of the same ilk as themselves.  The opening exhibits chart the working class backgrounds of the group (noting John Lennon’s more privileged position), utilising original photographs of the young band members, family information and even school reports.  The most vivid portrayal of this attempted ‘equalising’ however, is evident in a small circular room in which large mirrors alternate with equally large monochrome portraits; hence, the tourist can not avoid the simultaneous viewing of his or her own image with that of the Beatles themselves. 

The application of controlled rising and dimming of lights, coinciding with commentary and Beatles music, artfully pulls the visitors through the exhibition, exposing them to sacred artifacts and texts that connect a largely irrelevant site to its wider context.  Song lyrics are also explained and elevated in significance; Strawberry Fields Forever, we are told, ‘evokes those childhood memories through a dreamy hallucinogenic haze…it was and is one of the greatest pop songs of all time’, whereas Magical Mystery Tour was apparently ‘inspired by thoughts of British holiday makers’ and ‘an American hippy group who traveled trough California high on LSD’.  Instruments and authentic equipment are displayed, and actual suits worn by the band are presented in a style reminiscent of the display of Turin Shroud.  The music shop of Beatles manager Brian Epstein is recreated, embellished with texts describing his prophetic role in attempting to gain acceptance of the unsigned Beatles by the record company directors.  Indeed, Epstein is quoted as stating that ‘one day the Beatles will be bigger than Elvis’, a declaration of blasphemous quality at the time.  Similarly, the office of Mersey Beat magazine portrays an apostolic image of its editor Bill Harry as an emissary of the group’s ensuing greatness.

The centrepiece of the museum is a recreation of the Cavern Club, a site synonymous with the Beatles’s early success.  Sitting on neatly arranged wooden seats facing the stage, [figure 8, overleaf] behind which black and white documentary footage is played to the congregated visitors who watch in a solemn reverence that is largely adhered to throughout the exhibition.  This reverence is most apparent in the tourists encounter with the shrine to John Lennon, a recreated ‘White room’ that includes a framed photograph of Lennon and trademark round sunglasses on a a white grand piano [figure 9, overleaf].  The marker explicates the room’s significance: ‘In this room we have tried to capture John’s legacy to us, of his music, lyrics, emotions and his quest for peace’. To the sound of ‘Imagine’, the visitors read a detailed and poignant account of his murder:

‘…a voice calls out ‘Mr. Lennon’,  As John turns, Mark Chapman fires the gun.  A shot hits John in the chest and as he falls Chapman fires three more shots at him’


The canonising of John Lennon is completed with the statue and tribute following the exhibition, a shrine that further elevates him beyond ‘ordinariness’, as



“…one of those rare people who punctuate history for the good of man.  He was the kind of person who through his personal achievements enriched the lives of others”


(As written by Shelagh Johnston, general mananger)

Consequently, the tone of the displays indicates a desire to develop the sense of timelessness mentioned earlier, by demonstrating the ongoing significance of the message carried in the lyrics, music and beliefs of the band, and principally of John Lennon. As the museum’s mission statement states, the exhibition has a ‘major role to play in carrying the magic of the Beatles into the 21st century and beyond’.  Nonetheless, despite the ease with which the Beatles Story exhibition can be analogised with a religious pilgrimage sight, a fundamental point made earlier is that its interpretation, as with any religious or secular attraction, will inevitably evoke diverse emotional responses, depending on the cultural and social perspectives brought to the exhibition.  It is essential therefore, to reflect on the sight through the experiences of the visitors themselves.

4.3: Interpreting tourists’experiences

In chapter two, the problems of assessing emotion in-situ were briefly acknowledged as a possible barrier to accessing the significance of tourists’ experiences.  The Beatles Story exhibition however, like many other commercial and public sector businesses, provides a method of feedback that also facilitates the immediate expression of satisfaction or otherwise in the form of a visitor’s comments book.  Here, the visitor is free to express thoughts and feelings in their own time, own vocabulary and most importantly for emotional feedback, whilst they are still fresh in the mind.  Hence, comments are likely to succinctly express the most salient impressions gained from the display, information of particular value when combined with information from post-hoc interviews.  Together, these sources reveal the breadth of the Beatles temporal and cultural influence, as well as the variations in actual experience of the site.

Whilst it is apparent that for some tourists the exhibition is certainly an emotional experience, it is equally apparent that this experience itself is not generalizable.  Expressions of a nebulous positive emotion, undirected towards any particular aspect of the display are common in the visitor’s book, ‘brilliant, very moving’, ‘touching’ and ‘both happy and sad’ being indicative of a large proportion of comments.  For others though, the exhibition evokes a more personal and nostalgic connection with the era or the band, or even nostalgia for ‘what might have been’ rather than ‘what was’:


‘Great, just like living the times’

(Kevin and Denise, Australia)


‘ “today” it was all my “yesterdays”.  A life long fan of the fab four.  The Beatles will go on forever for me’ 

(Steph and Geoff)


‘I’m only eighteen, so I was never privileged enough to go to a Beatles concert but if I was a bit older I would have been there screaming my lungs out.  A cool decade’.


The account provided by two female interviewees in particular, expresses how the emotion emanating form the ‘White Room’ memorial to John Lennon connects vividly to personal recollections of his murder, a time that coincided with the birth of their own children.  The playing of ‘imagine’ causing them to ‘choke up’:

“I just remember I’d packed up work and I was sitting at home and listening to it, and everyone was, I don’t know, kind of worse.  We knew he’d been shot, but for me because I was at home, I don’t know, it got to me that he could just be, you know, shot like that”

The suggestion is then, that the sense of emotion drawn out by the exhibition can evoke frustration at missing out on an important event, or even morose reminiscence based more on individual circumstances (although for the woman above, her emotions could just as easily emanate from a sense of concern for the social conditions into which she is bringing her child, as sadness for a murdered pop star).  Perhaps most prominent is the positive expression of warm remembrance, and a practical nostalgia that helps to fill in the gaps in memory.  As one respondent remarked, the discovery of the meaning of some Beatles lyrics (from Strawberry Fields Forever) had long irritated her: ‘ “don’t get hung up about it”…I always wanted to know what that line meant…because it doesn’t make sense!’.  Just as with many religious texts, the actual intended truth of the vocabulary, or the significance of events of an era, might fade through time or pass away with its pivotal characters.  Sights of this genre therefore have a role in perpetuating an ‘official’ interpretation, even if (as the field observations show), there is considerable personlisation of meaning, and individualisation of significance.

Nevertheless, dominant themes of significance are identifiable, the strongest of which alludes directly to a sense of momentous personal achievement at reaching the sight, overcoming difficulties just as traditional pilgrims might have done.  Again, the visitor’s book provides ample evidence to indicate the affective power of the Beatles, and the sacred qualities of the place:

‘To many Brazilian people it’s a dream one day to visit the Beatles museum. I’m here’



‘I’m finally here in Liverpool after what seems like a lifetime of waiting.  Incredible’

(Danny from Toronto 23/7/01)


‘So awesome to be here, finally’

(K.N.C. USA)


‘I don’t believe I’m here!!  Liverpool, the Beatles land!!!  Its not real…!’

(Rodrigo, Brazil)



These comments reveal the enduring importance of the auratic power of Liverpool, and its synonymy with the Beatles, in attracting a core element of tourists who give a high priority to visiting this particular exhibition (apparently contradicting the aura-reducing effect of the media, argued by Rojek (1993)).  Although largely inauthentic in its actual structure (such as the reconstruction of the Cavern Club), the sight is imbued with meaning through the display of authentic music, film and memorabilia, combining to legitimate the experience for the more pilgrim-like visitor.  The city itself adds a real physical and social context that is deeply valued by such tourists, as they attempt to enter the Beatles ‘backstage’ by taking part in a guided ‘magical mystery [bus] tour’, or seek out the less inauthentic Cavern Club (to MacCannell’s (1976) terminology).  For one group of devoted fans, the city’s contextualising effect represents a previously underused commodity, one that has a part to play in spreading the word of the Beatles, as this interview extract suggests:

G: So how would you sum it up, in what it means for you?

M1: Just glad they did it.  Liverpool hasn’t embraced them as they should have, you know what I mean, commercially, where they make it a tourist thing rather than just a pilgrimage of fans.  Now it just crosses the generations

SG: So, it was like a pilgrimage for you?

M1: Yeh, I would say very much so…

M2: …very much so.

For these visitors, the Beatles Story exhibition represents an overdue presentation of a personally significant moment, a time they want others to be able to share in, a sentiment that might even reflect a nostalgic desire for ‘We’ feelings that emerges from an apparent yearning for ‘belonging’ (See Wouters 1992:240).  Moreover, they feel connected with the city through the Beatles, and reconnected to the era through the city.  For this reason, the ‘Beatles Story’ would not work elsewhere (for instance, Sheffield or London) as it does here.  The very ‘Liverpoolness’ of the Beatles themselves ensures the sanctification of the city, and therefore a symbiotic relationship of meaning between the two, a relationship recently cemented by the official renaming of Liverpool’s ‘John Lennon Airport’.

The intergenerational aspect of the Beatles phenomena, touched upon in the extract above, is also evident elsewhere, as in the earlier remarks from the eighteen year old who rues missing out on the ‘sixties’, and the Beatles in particular.  The issue is exemplified though, by the senior citizen of around seventy years old, making her third or fourth visit to the sight, with her daughter and grand children.  A self-confessed fan, she describes her daughter’s interest in the band:

‘She was about six when the Beatles were around, and she has a scrapbook of old cuttings and pictures and I would buy her the albums.  Its from when she was six, and she’s over forty now’

When questioned about her own daughter’s interest in the Beatles, the daughter in question admits that interest is limited: ‘the youngest one buys me Beatles stuff for Christmas [but] I’m working on it!’.  What this indicates is the importance of a popular cultural form in the temporal unity of a family, the interest in the Beatles acting as common ground in leisure between mother and daughter.  This attempted integration of the young children into the same pattern of behaviour, a pattern not dissimilar to a parent’s attempt to ensure that a son or daughter inherits a devotion to some particular football team, therefore offers the opportunity to enhance and perpetuate adherence to symbolic vehicles, with its subsequent augmentation of affective bonds within families and social groups. 

There is a further expression of emotion that must be acknowledged however, one that is more indicative of negative rather than the largely positive emotions seen so far.  For some visitors, instead of joy or nostalgia, a detachment from the sight is apparent, and is expressed in terms of an underwhelmed disappointment far removed from any deep significance.  One group of interviewees described the visit as like ‘looking at a documentary’, whilst the visitors book suggests that some visitor’s concerns are more with fiscal reality, than with the currency of emotions:

‘Very bored, very expensive’


‘I’ll never tell anyone to visit this place- too expensive.  I can find better things in the USA’

(anonymous entries)

Such disappointment is only to be expected Graburn suggests; it is an inherent danger of the escape from ordinariness for ‘pilgrim-tourists’ when their “self indulgent fantasies don’t turn out as planned” (1977:28).  But more than that, it reflects the multifaceted consumption of sights like the Beatles Story, a consumption that demonstrates the kind of multiple meanings that many commentators insist is essentially and unavoidably at the core of any pilgrim-like experience [1].  Despite this, observations cited in this short chapter alone have identified some significant meaning-themes, most particularly the emotional joy at finally reaching a dreamed of destination and its power to induce personally significant reminiscence.  As was discussed at the outset, the sight itself draws strong parallels with sacred sights of pilgrimage in its use of artifacts and meaningful texts as symbolic vehicles, and above all, the elevation of the human subjects onto a ‘timeless, ahistorical’ plain, as heroic or even saintly figures.

4.4: Summary

In some important ways though, the Beatles attractions (and Liverpool itself) do not correspond with pilgrimage places, in the sense discussed by Eade and Sallnow(1991), or Turner and Turner (1978).  The research carried out for this chapter does not in itself suggest a profound, liminal, transforming experience is taking place for the visitor; neither does it indicate the occurrence of miracles in the religious sense.  Nonetheless, the analogy is still of value, especially when reconsidering Rojek’s (1993) notions on leisure as escape. Whether viewed as a mere entertaining distraction or a socially and emotionally significant event in the tourist’s life, experiences of sights like the Beatles Story can be expected to provide at least some beneficial change in the visitor, even if only to temporarily ‘transform’ him or her from a troubled to a more tranquil state of being, or to transport them to a temporary cognitive semblance of a previous self.  In this mode of thought, sights of this genre can provide pilgrimage-like benefits through making sacred the profane, or more accurately, offering as sacred those individuals which society has itself deified through the processes of mass culture.  Furthermore, in doing so, such sights do not just preserve the past, but they preserve a significant part of many peoples’ personal histories.

Another point can be made in relation to Turner and Turner’s (1978) ‘common denominator’ of pilgrim sights, that of their association with miracles.  On first analysis, the Beatles phenomenon appears no more miraculous than any mass-media event that, by chance or design, emerges from a particular social situation.  Punk Rock, New Wave, Mods and Rockers all had their icons and disciples, yet arguably, it is only Elvis Presley that evokes the same kind of enduring mass devotion that the Beatles attract.  The ‘miracle’, here is in the way that the root ordinariness of these figures has been so completely and dramatically transcended, to the point where their music is almost secondary to their cultural significance as symbolic vehicles.  At this level, it is argued here, such icons can and do touch upon something intrinsically important in many peoples’ lives, reaching into their ‘root paradigms’.

In their ultimate escape from the mundane, common and ‘everyday’, the Beatles and their like provide the object of aspiration that insists that mediocrity is not necessarily a permanent binding force on the individual.  In providing a temporal and spatial escape route, this sight and those like it might therefore help visitors confront and overcome their own fears – those of losing their past, or of being trapped in an ‘ordinary’ future.  Even if they have no conscious desire to permanently escape the comforting if confining encumbrances of normality and structure, contemporary and sacred pilgrimage provide the means of vicarious transcendence of ordinariness without its associated dangers, dangers that John Lennon and many others eventually succumbed to.  It is perhaps rather perverse then, that contemporary pseudo-saints often pay such a heavy price for providing ‘profane’ entertainment.  As a popular comedian recently remarked on the death of Elvis Presley, “1977 might have been a bad year for rock and roll, but it was a great year for the souvenir industry” (Channel Four 21/7/01).


For instance, see Eade and Sallnow’s arguments around religious pilgrimage, and Reader and Walter’s appraisal of contemporary pilgrimage, both mentioned earlier in this chapter. 

[1]  6  interviews were carried out at the sight, following a similar process as employed at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.  Appendix 2 provides full transcripts and more information on the respondents.