I recently visited the Imperial War Museum London, a British national museum which seeks “to enable people to have an informed understanding of modern war and its impact on individuals and society” (mission statement). If you are hoping to learn about the former British Empire and its global conquests, as the museum’s name might lead you to believe, then the IWM is actually not the place you want to go at all. Instead, what is done most successfully at the IWM is the ability of its exhibitions to remind people how to remember.
The third floor of the IWM, for example, features an intensely graphic, artifact-rich and text- and video-based exhibition on The Holocaust. This dimly lit gallery space–no doubt a conservation measure as well as for thematic and aesthetic purposes–is a winding tour through jagged, claustrophobic compartments detailing certain historical aspects of The Holocaust. The exhibition moves along somewhat of a chronological and topical sequence: from Europe after WWI and the rise of Hitler; to German anti-Semitism and racial propaganda; to the Nazi invasion and domination of Europe; to the formation of Jewish ghettos and “re-settlement”; to the camp system and life within in; to the eventual resistance, rescue, and discovery of the death camps; and, finally, to war crimes trials of the Nazis and reflections by the survivors.
Perhaps the most illuminating part of the whole experience is found in the space about the deportation to concentration camps and the spotlight on Auschwitz, where the Nazis “perfected” (quoted from the exhibit text) the operation of concentration camps and the carrying out of “The Final Solution.” Visitors walk through an authentic reconstructed cattle car used by the Nazis to transport tens of thousands of people across Europe and into to the camps. The text describes the deportation process and includes transcriptions of deportees’ written “last letters,” one of which was handed off to a railroad worker in hopes that he would send it without postage. Upon exiting the car, visitors come to a massive 50-foot model of a small section–maybe 15%–of Auschwitz. Audio clips of camp survivors describing the last time they saw their family members can be heard, and the text details how the deportees were separated, male from female, young from aged, weak from strong. In glass cabinets on the other side of the model are personal effects of those who did not escape the gas chambers: scorched eyeglasses, tattered leather shoes, children’s toys, Star of David necklaces.
Readers will notice that in this brief description of The Holocaust Exhibition there is a distinct exclusion of my personal emotional responses. I have purposely left out private reactions so as not to cloud the key premise of this blog post: museum exhibits dedicated to past tragedies, particularly human induced atrocities such as The Holocaust, are important vehicles in the formation of collective memory and facilitate the consumption of trauma/loss in a way that provides society with a cathartic release from grief. Simply put, memorials to “negative heritage” allow society to remember to remember.
From a Western perspective, material objects can serve as analogs for human memory wherein the memory lasts as long as the object. Preservation of artifacts, therefore, equates to preservation of the memory. Some people will inevitably find the display of victims’ personal items gross, insensitive, and dehumanizing. However, such display, I think, permits present and future viewers to form an emotional, sympathetic connection to a victim. The viewer thus identifies the former possession of an object with a historical person rather than viewing it merely as a surviving relic of the tragedy. Possessions can serve a dual purpose, both as symbols for the dead and for the tragic event itself.
Alternatively, in Cambodian and Rwandan atrocity memorials it is common for human remains, particularly the skulls of genocide victims, to be put on display. In the West, human bones are rarely if ever used as museum pieces to memorialize the dead; it is just too visceral and “disturbing.” Yet, Cambodians and Rwandans have a willingness to display the bloody wrappings of murdered individuals because for them it demonstrates the hideousness of the event. Such a display is their unique way of showing that the repression of memory is unhealthy, that forgetting the dead is to altogether shun history and its lessons. They remember by these means so as to prevent the reoccurring of this tragedy.
In this way, then, loss demands confirmation. Holocaust memorial exhibitions such as that at the IWM, and even entire memorial museums such as those found throughout the world, do just that: their cure is a talking cure. Though their method of grief counseling is different than in Cambodia and Rwanda, Holocaust memorials in the West have the same purpose–to negotiate, to reconcile, and, if possible, to repair the damage inflicted.
I think these types of museums and memorials are powerful creators of collective memory. While clearly not every individual will engage with these displays in the same way, the point is not to create universal sentiments and a common feeling of regret (or pride) and grief (or happiness). Instead, there is the commemorative role in which all people are able to consume the history in a way that prevents society from forgetting history entirely. I agree that it is problematic to assume everyone will appreciate the act of remembering, but I think memory can ultimately effect positive change in the future in a way that total repression can not.