Memorial museums: cabinets of misery

There is an unhealthy obsession with showcasing the dark side of history.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

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Museums that document trauma and conflict have proliferated across the globe in the past decade, and more are planned. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will showcase atrocities endured by groups that have made their home in Canada, and is due to open in 2009. In Thailand there is talk of building a memorial museum documenting the damage caused by last year’s tsunami, and a museum has been proposed to display the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

The Robben Island Museum in South Africa and the genocide museums outside Kigali in Rwanda have achieved international renown. In the USA, holocaust museums have proliferated – the best known is the Washington Holocaust Museum.

This mania for memorial museums is a sign of a society with an unhealthy obsession. These new museums indicate a desire to elevate the worst aspects of mankind’s history as a way to understand humanity today. Our pessimism-tinted spectacles distort how we interpret the past.

These museums tend to downplay historical exhibits, since the aim is to make yesterday’s conflicts relevant to today. The Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam asks visitors where they stand on the contemporary threat of the far right in Europe, and the question of racism in football. The Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles transforms the history of the Holocaust into a discussion about everyday intolerance. It is suggested that there is a slippery slope between shouting and shoving, and world wars. Audiences are lectured that ‘the potential of violence is within us all’.

But the Holocaust was an extreme and specific event, and it is not helpful to compare it to everyday rudeness. Doing so distorts our understanding of the power relationships and state organisation that developed in 1930s and 40s Germany. In addition, likening Auschwitz to the impact of the far right today is an insult to those who died. To suggest, as the exhibitions at Beit Hashoah do, that any of us could slip up and find ourselves carrying out mass killings, equates historical and social events with careless individual actions.

Many exhibits launch a further assault on history by targeting the individual visitor through their emotions. Visitors to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in South Africa receive a card assigning them an arbitrary racial classification of white or non-white, which encourages them to personally relate to the story told. Meanwhile, at the new Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, the lights are turned off, and audiences are subjected to blaring sirens in surround-sound and a multi-screen audiovisual show. It seems it would not be possible to learn about the war by just looking at the artifacts and reading the labels. We have to pretend we are in an air raid.

The entrance to the permanent exhibition at the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum is designed to remind people of a concentration camp: the elevators are claustrophobic, made of metal with low ceilings, and badly lit. A video monitor plays a clip of liberators arriving at a concentration camp. As it stops, the doors open and visitors walk into the elevator that resembles a cattle car.

A gallery space with frightening noises, metal railings, grey walls and stark lighting is provoking. But the experience of conflict and the permanent presence of death cannot be recreated through design, lighting and sound. Interior designers cannot really evoke the experience. To attempt to do so mocks the reality.

The assumption seems to be that visitors can only appreciate what happened by thinking how we would react in a similar situation – as if we are so narcissistic that we can’t contemplate the past without roleplay. We are encouraged to think about ‘me’, not them; now, not then. This trivialises what happened, reducing the understanding of the war to a (bad) reality museum experience.

In the past, traditional museums promoted national myths. Such portrayals were deeply flawed and naturalised the position of powerful elites. It is right to rethink museum interpretation. But today’s memorialising of suffering creates a new and damaging vision of people. It is a bleak outlook that sees humanity as constantly at the mercy of arbitrary violence. All peoples are portrayed as victims of history unable to change the cycle, forever weak and vulnerable.

There have been great wrongs in the past, and history museums should set out to understand what happened and why, without distorting the past through present pessimism. We should forget the sort of remembering that replaces tradition, Kings and Queens with a theatre of trauma.

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director of the Institute of Ideas.

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Topics Culture


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