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.

USS-Arizona

(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.

*Sources:

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.

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