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Q&A: Ken Burns On Why Travel is Now More Important Than Ever

The documentarian shares the details of his latest project: a series of new trips inspired by his award-winning films.

Ken Burns Photo: Courtesy University of Texas-Arlington

Documentarian Ken Burns has long been celebrated for his ability to render history in an engaging and relevant way. This year, he’s partnering with travel outfitter Tauck to share his singular perspective in three unique experiences to Washington, D.C., the American West, and Vietnam. We caught up with the filmmaker for some intel on his new itineraries, and why travel is more important now than ever.

What inspired you to launch these tours?

We saw the chance, through travel, to share some of the fascinating stories we’d come across in the course of making our films. With film, we’re limited to two-dimensional images and sound. But with a carefully crafted itinerary, I can literally put you on the ground at Gettysburg or inside Mark Twain’s study. Travel is a medium just as film is—in some ways a richer medium.

Why is travel so important?

Mark Twain famously observed that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and I think that, now more than ever, we need to transcend those all-too-human flaws—and I firmly believe that travel can help accomplish that. It’s important that we get out into the world, and meet and engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Only then can we discover and embrace our common humanity.

How does history play a part in travel?


Past events inform a place’s culture: its traditions, its music, its cuisine—they all echo its past. And without delving into its past, you can’t truly understand and appreciate its present.

Tell us about the new itineraries.

We picked these destinations in the same way we pick the topics of our films. Each in its own way explores what it means to be an American. Washington, D.C., of course, defines our past and our present; the Western U.S. is truly mythic in its stature; and we’re still dealing with the repercussions of the Vietnam War today.

What are some of the trip highlights?

In Washington, D.C., there will be an after-hours evening at the National Archives, with a private viewing of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. On the Mythic West itinerary, guests will visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield and get a better understanding of what happened there. And in Vietnam, a visit to the Viet Cong’s Củ Chi Tunnels will underscore the determination and resourcefulness that American forces faced during the war.

What are you planning for your next travel itinerary?

Nothing has been announced officially, but we often look to our latest films for inspiration, and right now we’re working on films about Ernest Hemingway and country music. Both of those subjects could eventually lend themselves easily to new and wonderful tour itineraries.

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