The Audience and the Exhibition

For those in the field of designing exhibitions within the human rights memorial museums, it never is an easy job.  Presenting violence does not prevent violence after all.  When creating new alternative exhibitions that address such violations, it is important to become multi-disciplined in the process.  Using common themes by drawing on academic literature and public discussion of critical museology, heritage management, collective memory, public scholarship, and transitional justice can help structure the exhibition, including when attempting to explain the reason the conflict occurred in the first place.

The word “curate” in its root meaning of “caring for” allowing us to expand the discussion outward from museums and exhibitions to encompass heritage sties, memorials, and other alternative art exhibitions.  When looking at human rights violation exhibitions, “to ‘care for’ the past is to make something of it, to place and order it in a meaningful way in the present rather than to abandon it” (Lehrer, p.4).  But when creating a new exhibition, no longer does it represent the violation but now the exhibition’s goal is to make things happen.  Audiences must be transformed into participants.  Comment books no longer exist but instead, become part of the exhibition as objects.  Every experience that is brought in with the visitor becomes a part of the exhibition and the way the story is told.

How the story is told is something that the curatorial staff needs to address from the very beginning.  They must ask themselves whether the exhibit is intended to make the victims/veterans feel better about the surviving or to make the visitor understand the consequences of the violation.  After one of the paths is decided, then the curator can determine how to make the information available to that intended audience without visitor isolation occurring.  While an exhibition with the intent on celebrating the survivors can easily tell the story without bringing into the difficult aspects of the violation that had occurred, an exhibition based off of understanding consequences makes such an exhibition more difficult.  Explaining the dark side of humans and attempting to explain how someone/a group of people could destroy others lives is something most individuals do not want to hear.  Visitors regress, isolate themselves or could even punish themselves when informed of the horrific events of today’s world.

When installing such an exhibition, Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Nancy Gillette of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum state their three “inherent tensions in the task of exhibiting content about genocide: between presenting a didactic lesson about the concept of genocide and telling the stories of what happened in specific places; between the presentation of the history of any single case of genocide and the unique experiences of individuals; and between the reality of extreme violence against people in distant places and the attempt to inspire response to an often overwhelming problem from afar” (Conley-Zilkic, p.36).  In order to create an exhibition in which the audience does not have such negative effects, Conley-Zilkic and Gillette state that there is the intense need to confirm exactly how everything is to be addressed within the exhibition and to continue throughout the exhibit with that same tactic.  If the curator wants to the visitor to feel like the violation is close to them, in their backyard for example, then that feeling needs to remain throughout the exhibition, not just in one part.

In addition to overcoming the obstacle of the audience/participant becoming isolated within their own thoughts and choices of pain, is trying to figure out where lies the middle ground.  When does an experience become too violent for the audience?  Like the path that the exhibition is headed down, the curatorial staff must decide if they should ease on the horrific information or expect the audience to toughen up.  If the answer is the former, how can the curatorial staff keep the audience even more isolated from the sensations that they are trying to convey?  How do you confront without provoking, to invite and listen while also educating and enlightening? How d you illuminate horrors experienced by everyday people in real life?

One of the ways is by creating a dialogue with the visitor about their own experience through the use of material culture.  Exhibition designers must provide a safe environment in which the visitors have control over how and when they respond to the information in addition to how they relate their own experiences to the provided information.  Depending on who the visitor is depends on how they relate to the information provided.  Like stated before, is the visitor a survivor?  A friend or family of a survivor?  Or is the visitor someone else completely?  The decision on how the information is provided can not only alter the state in which the visitor acknowledges the information but also, how they bring the knowledge outside the institution.


Conley-Zilkic, Bridget and Nancy Gillette.  “Challenging Visitors to Move from Memory to Action

at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”.  Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience.  Exhibitionist. 2011.

Patterson, Monica Eileen .“Teaching Tolerance through Objects of Hatred: The Jim Crow

Museum of Racist Memorabilia as “Counter-Museum””.  Curating Difficult Knowledge:Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Memory of History

“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”(Martin Niemoller)

Throughout the world, there has become a constant theme to “forgive and forget.”  To forgive is something that is not only humanly but can also be the hardest part to accomplish when accepting the trauma that had occurred.  Forgiveness is arguably not about accepting the horror that has happened but instead, to become cleansed of the grief and anger.  But, forgetting is something much different.  Forgetting is choosing to expel the thoughts, memories and emotions from one’s mind and body, accepting that the terror is of the past, somewhere dark never to be seen again.  Unfortunately though, as time has shown, this is not always the correct path. Within the blog, a demand to the public will occur, not to stand up and fight for human rights with pickets and fists, but instead, to never forget the tragic events that have occurred in man’s lifetime.  Only when the public remembers such horrors can future violations be stopped before spiraling out of control.  In Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel’s, famous poem, he states that he did not speak out when the others were taken by the Nazi’s.  But when they finally came for him, there was no one to speak up.  By choosing to block out the pain of watching others be taken to their death, he eliminated the hope that someone might try and stop the Nazi’s from taking him to his own death.  People who choose to violate human rights can only do so, if no one chooses to stand up and say ‘no, I remember what happened last time, and it will never, never happen again’.

Predicated in the early twentieth-century writing of Maurice Halbwachs and later relooked at by Michel Foucault, “contemporary scholarship has posed memory as an activity of collectivity rather than (or in addition to) individuated, cognitive work.  The assumption of a shared understanding of the past is captured in the multiple modifiers attached to ‘memory’ in recent years” (Dickinson, p. 3).  Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson and Brian L. Ott summarized in the introduction of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials that contemporary memory scholars have taken a number of positions on remembering being taken place in groups.  They include:

“(1) memory is activated by present concerns, issues, or anxieties;

(2) memory narrates shared identities, constructing sense of communal belonging;

(3) memory is animated by affect;

(4) memory is partial, partisan, and thus often contested;

(5) memory relies on material and/or symbolic supports;

(6) memory has a history” (Dickinson, p. 5)

Memory is not about the concerns and issues of the present but instead, a way of understanding, justifying, excusing or even subverting conditions of the present based off of the past.  Some groups may even start to popularize some events or individuals over others due to their ability of choice.  Public memory embraces that which the group thinks is important and worthy of preservation.  David Lowenthal suggests that “the prime function of memory…is not to preserve the past but to adapt it so as to enrich and manipulate the past… Memories are not readymade reflections of the past, but eclectic, selective reconstructions based on subsequent actions and perceptions and on ever-changing codes by which we delineate, symbolize, and classify the world around us” (Dickinson, p. 6).

Looking back at the sixth position of group memory, it is important to be able to recognize the differences between memory and history as two separate entities in addition to their connection to one another.  The differences and relationships between history and memory in Pierre Nora’s account has surely been the most cited by other scholars:

“Memory and history, far from being synonymous, are thus in many respects opposed.  Memory is life, always embodied in living societies and as such in permanent evolution, subject to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of the distortions to which it is subject, vulnerable in various ways to appropriation and manipulation, capable of lying dormant for long periods only to be suddenly reawakened.  History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.  Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.  Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details… History, being an intellectual, non-religious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse.  Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context.  History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose… At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory.” (Dickinson, p. 25)

While the distinction Nora draws on is not universally accepted, it does serve to mark out different tendencies that are frequently attributed to memory and history.  While some public memory scholars continue to look at the sharp distinction of representing the past like Nora, most public memory scholars are more likely to “embrace Marita Sturken’s far less stark delineation; she suggests that history and memory are ‘entangled,’ rather than comprising completely distinct activities”, memory has history (Dickinson, p. 26).

In the end, rather one believes that memory and history are joined at the hip or separated as individual entities, the result is still remains.  When looking at the violent past to help ensure a more peaceful future, both the memory of those who survived and the history written in books, serve as vital stories to help create the intelligence needed to forgive those who didn’t know, but never forget the pain of what happened.


Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L Ott.  Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. University of Alabama Press. 2010.

Lehrer, Erica and Cynthia E. Milton.  “Introduction”.  Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Museums meet Memorials

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  William Faulkner writes this quote in his classic novel Requiem for a Nun, while exploring how the process of memorialization keeps the past alive in the present and shapes the way we imagine our possible futures.  In today’s world, there are many different kinds of institutions that house famous works of all departments of enquiry, both of the ‘past’ and the ‘present’.  These range from museums, universities, cultural centers, galleries, memorials, etc.  One very special things that all these institutions ought to do and probably do not do enough is to bring together people from across the community around a common theme and issue.  Too often, our disciplines and departments are the things that define us.  In fact, they structure us in ways that narrow some of our thinking and opportunities.  And yet, to be alive and to be well means to be more organic in the ability to come together around a theme for while, to really explore it to meaningful depths, and then let our curiosities take us in other directions afterwards.  While this can happen at any of the institutions listed above, more than anything, memorials are created to do just that.

One of the biggest differences between a memorial and other institutions is the collection.  In recent years, the argument between whether or not a memorial institute can add “museum” to their title has been raging. Ten years after the events of September 11, 2011, the examination of museums and memorials in the United States, in addition to around the world, memorials are becoming more and more determined that not only should they be allowed to be called a “memorial museum” but also have the same rights and grant-funding availability that museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago (which ironically does not have the word ‘museum’ in their title), the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Technology.

While commemorative statues and monuments have been around for a long time, memorial museums seem to have come into their own during the 20th century.  But while this has happen, when looking at collections, it is important first to see the differences between that of a ‘museum’ and a ‘memorial’.  If there is a distinction between a ‘museum’ and a ‘memorial.’ it seems fairly blurry.  Collections might be one difference.  We might also say that a museum should be more objective than a memorial, which usually has a very pronounced point of view about its subject, but we know that all museums come at their collections and stories from specific viewpoints and perspectives.   Memorials on the other hand, tend to show the alternative form of storytelling.

Museums perhaps cover all bases of human life.   Even when looking at a museum with a focal theme, they still have a wide variety of objects and exhibitions that tell the intended story.    Memorials on the other happen appear to document almost exclusively the darker side of life, human suffering and the violation of human rights.  The concept of human rights is relatively recent in world history, coming to fruition in the 20th century.  This may be one reason why museums with this theme have proliferated in our time.  And of course the 20th century is without parallel (so far) in providing multiple examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” (Jennings, p.1).  The role of survivors, family, and descendants is crucial both for the creation and the sustenance of a vibrant memorial site. The significance goes in both directions: it enriches the site and appears to bring a measure of comfort and healing to those most touched by the event.  When looking at memorials that have been around for a number of years, it is clear that the most powerful continue to reinvent themselves, as new evidence about old events come to light, and as new examples of what was supposed to be “never again” appear.

The material reality of the event causing the memorial is extremely important.  When artifacts from such an event, such as the holocaust in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, come into an exhibition, not only does the visitor get a real sense of what the object was, but also a graphic material presence of the reality of the event as well.  Artifacts automatically make the story around the object more realistic due to the very knowledge that another human being once used that same object. In addition, important artifacts can often change the terms of an exhibition in addition to the story that is being told.

Childrens Drawings from US HOLO

(Children’s drawings in The Holocaust, the US Holocaust

Memorial Museum’s permanent exhibition.

Other photographs of this exhibition can be found in their photo archive.)

In addition to physical artifacts that can be placed within an exhibition, the physical space of the memorial is in fact, part of the collection as well.  The USS Arizona Memorial at Peal Harbor is not only a historic site but also a part of the overall collection of the Pearl Harbor Memorial.


(Image provided by Google)

It is a preservation challenge for the Park Service because there are thousands of gallons of oil still in it leaking to the surface.  You can’t go in to shore it up because you’re guilty of defiling a grave, an active gravesite.  But while these complications exist, there is still a strong sense that this artifact is a part of the collection because it shows a piece of the history that is needed to be told.  Not only is this boat part of historical facts and an artifact, but also completely in relation to the exhibitions going on in the museum.

While having some physical remains, the most important (and controversial) items within a memorials collection are the memory.  The problem with this concept is that they are not physical.  While memories can be written down or achieved through different means of devices, the factor still remains whether or not a museum can be created off of stories.  The tension between commemorative voices, voices of survivors, voices of family members, voices of veterans, voices of people who have been involved in these extreme situations and speak out of the voice of experience is that: “I was there; I know what happened.”  Each voice is one that has to be interrogated and placed in a larger context.

To combat this issue, memorials often choose what side of the story that they will side with, depending on the most realistic and truthful compared to the artifacts already in their collection and history books.  The District Six Museum, located in Cape Town, South Africa, on the other hand, chooses to tell all stories.  While each voice may not be heard within every exhibition, they have created an extensive oral history collection.  In this part of the collection, they have taken all of the stories and personal histories that have been told and recorded since the opening of the museum in order to make sure all voices and stories are heard, whether it is in a physical exhibition or waiting for a researcher to come into the collection.

In the end, memorial museums are first and foremost a symbolic burial place for the people who died.  It is a sacred place for survivors. You do though, tell the real story.


Cobb, Daniel M. and Helen Sheumaker. Memory Matters. State University of New York Press. 2011.

Jennings, Gretchen.  “From the Editor”. Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience. Exhibitionist.  2011.

Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. Random House Digital, Inc. 2011.

What is Social Art Activism?

“Art cannot change the world but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world” (Marcuse, p 32-33)

Social art activism is not a new concept nor is it revolutionary.  But, in recent years, social art activism has taken a new step in the direction of becoming more common in the mass media and action.  As Herbert Marcuse stated in the above quote, no matter how much art is created, art cannot change the world.  But that is why the term is called art activism rather than simply art or social art.  It is the activism that is created through the art that is the driving force to change the consciousness as Marcuse states.  That consciousness is the driving force for men and women to change the world but without that consciousness change, the possibility for men and women to change is that much harder.

There are many different possibilities into why social art activism has become a driving force in the past few years.  One of the main reasons may be the renewal of popularity of art as both a commodity and a life-style.  As artists are moving away from the styles of the old masters, there is now a need for a new muses.  For some artists, their inspiration has become the awareness of human right violations that otherwise may have gone unnoticed in the back-page of the newspaper.  Marina Grzinic proposes to think about the “possibility of an alternative space for art, culture, activism, and politics that can be termed as radical art and political space with practices, interventional logics, and subjects that bear the same name of alternative and radical art once” (Playing by the Rules)

Art can be used for activist purposes in multiple ways.  Three of these purposes include: awareness, understanding, and prevention.  Artists who use their work for awareness are very similar to some of the projects and organizations that I have mentioned within this blog.  These artists are trying to teach the viewer by using the specific tragedies that the artist feels strong about as topics and themes within their art.  If the artist wishes to become even more active, possibly even starting a movement, then they are more likely to associate with other organizations that deal more with the political, legal or economic side while the artist is able to make the art.

Artists or artist groups that use their art in the hopes of helping the visitor understand the tragedy that has occurred are usually those of more exhibition designers and other curator-like figures.  These individuals are no more or less significant than the first group but instead of creating the art, these people choose to take the art already created (possibly by someone in the first group), put it on the wall, and explain to the overall reason for the theme.  Explaining a tragedy through art can be both difficult and overwhelming but as museums continue to struggle with the balancing act today, more professionals are starting to bend the line between what is considered the “proper” way of exhibition tragedy within a public space.  These bends are different for every individual but as more violations are coming to the surface and being talked about, instead of being shunned away in the back of textbooks, the exhibition designers are able to make the

Finally, there is prevention.  Organizations and artists choose this purpose go beyond the educational aspect.  Stacy Mann stated that “instead of asking visitors to understand victim’s experiences, we should help visitors consider what leads individuals to participate in genocide” (Mann, p. 26). By thinking about the cause rather than the result, individuals are able to start pinpointing attributes that may tie with other past events.  With this in mind, there is the hope that by finding reasons for the cause, future violations may be prevented due to noticing trends.  While this can not be said for every future violation, by learning about the violators, there is the chance for individuals to step up before something horrific happens, preventing the violation, and causing a more secure peace.

To return to the original quote, it is important to understand that despite the fact that art can help change the conscience and drive of men and women, art cannot start this transformation.  Instead, it is important to acknowledge that in order for art to help men and women, the person still needs to be taught the proper steps before being able to understand how art can assist in their thoughts and plans.

Shortly after the end of World War II, in the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, a group of parents led by an educator named Loris Malaguzzi started a school for early childhood education that incorporated what would later be described by Malaguzzi as “the hundred languages of children”.  As stated through the Reggio’s school website, the hundred languages of Children are “symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpting, dramatic play, writing, painting are used to represent children’s thinking processes and theories.  As children work through problems and ideas they are encouraged to depict their understanding using many different representations.  As their thinking evolves they are encouraged to revisit their representation to determine if they are representative of their intent or if they require modification” (

While the goals of the hundred languages of children continue on farther than that of social art activism, there still remains the idea that “the goal was to re-envision the child not as an empty container to be filled with facts but as an individual with rights, great potential, and diversity” (Helguera, p.4).  Pablo Helguera states that “socially engaged art can’t be produced inside a knowledge vacuum (p.7).  Instead, in order to create art that brings awareness and engages with the people around it, the artist must also understand and engage with the community, organization or situation at hand.  The object of creating socially engaged activist art is not to become an expert in sociology, education, medical, etc, but instead, understand the complexities of the fields and learn some of their tools in order to employ them within the art.  Social interaction is itself an art, with engagement necessary for anything to happen.  It is through that social interaction that ideas that may turn into movements and thus activist art projects.  Art is both at the beginning and the end of most social engagements and as stated earlier, with the teaching, children and young adults can be filled with passion, understanding and a will to create a better tomorrow through art, rather than facts.

A Chinese proverb states: “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand”.  In order to bring awareness, action and prevention to the lives of everyone around us, it starts with involvement.  History has shown that involvement can come in multiple different forms, one being social art activism.  Seeing the art and social aspect creates the memory but by becoming a part of the art, either through creation, demonstration or any other aspect, each individual is able to not only become a part of a larger force but understand.  Understanding, both facts and ideas, allows individuals to start to see what they are fighting for and why it is important to continue to educate others.


Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York. 2011 in Public Places.  St Martin’s Press LLC. 2011.

Marcuse, Herbert.  The Aesthetic Dimension.  Boston: Beacon Press.  1978.

Mann, Stacey and Danny M. Cohen. “When a Boxcar Isn’t a Boxcar: Designing for Human Rights”. Museums, Memorials, and Sites of Conscience.  Exhibitionist. 2011.