Beichuan, the most heavily damaged town in the Sichuan earthquake zone, will soon become a museum and memorial to the victims of the May 12, 2008 earthquake. The local government announced recently that the town’s ruins, including collapsed and leaning homes, schoolhouses and offices, will be preserved in their current wrecked state. Officials believe the 8,600 dead, about half of Beichuan’s population, will be best remembered if the town’s fragile remnants are left standing rather than demolished. 80 percent of the old part of the town and 20 percent of the new part was destroyed that day.
|Aftermath of May 12, 2008 earthquake at Beichuan
(Photo: Reuters; more photos here)
Concerns have been raised as to if and how to exhume the remaining hundreds of missing bodies, whether the survivors will ever be able to properly mourn the loss of loved ones still buried. The founding of the earthquake museum touches on issues of remembrance and the commemoration of tragic events. By visiting such museums and memorials, do people affected by this (or other unpredictable natural disasters) experience cathartic release from their loss? As a preserved site of negative heritage, does Beichuan withhold the collective negative memory of an unavoidable catastrophe and offer a place for healing and reconciliation? Or will it forever be somewhere to avoid?
I have written elsewhere on the topic of memory and the importance confronting negative heritage (see, “Remember to Remember at Holocaust Museums” and “Negative Memory Bulldozed in Sri Lanka”, and my argument remains much the same: museums dedicated to traumatic events engage a wide audience in the necessary consumption of grief, allowing society as a whole to remember and commemorate people and the past in a way that prevents us from forgetting our collective history entirely.