|Dr. Michelle Metro-Roland|
Semiotics of urban tourism examined by international researcher
The interaction between urban environments and tourists in Budapest, Hungary as examined through extensive ethnographic field work with foreign visitors is explained in a new book, “Tourists, Signs and the City: the Semiotics of Culture in an Urban Landscape” by Dr. Michelle Metro-Roland, WMU geographer and director of faculty and global program development at the Haenicke Institute for Global Education.
Metro-Roland said the book’s theoretical framework is based on three applied studies undertaken with foreign visitors to the Hungarian capital, and is grounded in the literature of landscape geography, tourism studies, cultural studies, visual studies and philosophy. It was released by Ashgate Publishing in October 2011. She has numerous publications and is also co-editor of the book “Landscape, Tourism, and Meaning” released by Ashgate in 2008.
“This book takes a multi-disciplinary approach to explain the way in which Peircean semiotics elucidates our understanding of the built environment,” said Metro-Roland, who holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University. “Budapest offers an ideal space in which to investigate the process of semiotics because it is really a blank for most people. Unlike other European capitals such as London or Paris, Budapest is more of an enigma.”
“The people I interviewed often had little to no background knowledge about the city and the culture, so their on-the-ground interpretive experiences were more overtly brought to the fore,” she said. “Semiosis, of course, is an ongoing process no matter where we are, but the lack of preconceptions afforded some very thoughtful discussions.”
She said part of the appeal of urban tourism is the city itself and the rhythms of urban life from cafés and parks to butcher shops, farmers’ markets and factories, yet not all spaces of this cityscape are equally of interest to the visitor.
“While it is not surprising that cities are palimpsestual, nor that they are organized into quarters, what became apparent in carrying out this research was that the spaces of tourism in the city are far more complex than the ways in which we conceptualize the tourist moving through them in the theoretical literature,” she said. “At the other extreme is the ‘touristscape,’ the collection of cultural and heritage sites, the hotels and tourist-friendly restaurants, and even the kitsch souvenir shops, which often are the sites for performing as a tourist. Unlike the controlled spaces of enclavic tourist sites or heritage parks, the interaction between the urban with the touristic creates a sense of place for the tourist. The tourist prosaic frames the banal against the touristscape and the monotony of tourist sites is relieved by juxtaposition with the cityscape; the city creeps in. The tourist prosaic can account for the disorderliness of urban life and the smoothness of tourist space.”
Situating her research in Budapest offered Metro-Roland a unique opportunity to consider how the tensions between notions of East and West, the debates about Magyar national identity, and the foreign powers which have influenced the country have helped shape the contours of the urban landscape.
Currently Dr. Metro-Roland is working on several projects: co-authoring the book “Tourism: The Construction, Interpretation, and Performance of Places”; following notions of architexturality by exploring the tensions between preservation and development in neighborhood creation and architectural design; and writing about food geography.
“The paper about food geography discusses gulyásleves and its better known bastard cousin, goulash,” she said. “The paper explores the long route the dish took from the peppers that came through the Ottoman Empire to the cowboys of the Hungarian Great Plains and into the kitchens of nationalist-minded Magyars, eventually coming with Hungarian emigrants at the end of the 19th century to the ‘New World,’ in which it evolved from soup to stew.”
Metro-Roland has a broad range of responsibilities at the Haenicke Institute, which include aiding faculty interested in international research and topics.
“I work with faculty in support of exchanges, and providing funding for visiting speakers,” she said. “I administer the International Education Faculty Development Fund, which provides small grants for overseas research and presentation at international conferences. I am also charged with the Fulbright program on campus, working with the Fulbright fellows who are here studying from abroad, as well as with WMU students and faculty who wish to apply to Fulbright.” Metro-Roland is a Fulbright-Hays alumna, and is very happy to be engaged with the next generation of Fulbright scholars.
Additionally, Metro-Roland serves as the assistant director of the University’s global and international studies program and as an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Geography. She teaches European geography courses and the senior capstone course for global and international studies majors. She has worked closely with Haenicke Institute Dean Donald G. McCloud, program director, to improve and enhance the program, including the revision of the capstone course.
“Students majoring in this program are now required to produce original research grounded in the literature of their discipline and overseen by a faculty mentor from their area of study, which they formally present at the end of the semester,” she said. “The flexibility of the program and its focus on thinking about issues globally has contributed to its growth—nearly 200 students have declared global and international studies as their major or minor. We’ve also supported the founding of a global and international studies student organization and we’re working on career development programs geared specifically for these students to help them learn more about graduate study and how to translate their international experiences onto their cv’s.”
Story by Nate Coe