Standing in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 22, 1993, the day the Museum officially opened, U.S. President William Clinton stated, “the nations of the West must live forever with this knowledge: even as our fragmentary awareness of these crimes grew into indisputable facts, we did far too little…The evil represented in this museum is incontestable. It is absolute. As we are its witnesses, so must we remain its adversary….” He finished his speech with these words of resolute moral commitment: “With God’s blessing upon our souls, the memories of the fallen in our hearts and minds, it is the ceaseless struggle to preserve human rights and dignity that we rededicate ourselves…we will never relent, and we will prevail.”

Across an ocean, in southern Europe, the brutal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was entering its second year, with what became known as “ethnic cleansing” in full force. And on that very same April day, in Tuzla, a Bosnian-government-held town, American journalist Peter Maas watched the museum’s opening ceremonies on TV. It was the moment, he writes, that he began to feel “spiritually sick” (Maas, 242).

Maass had spent three hours that day interviewing Dr. Nedret Mujkanovic, who had fled along with some of the injured from besieged Srebrenica. Mujkanovic’s work in Srebrenica included tending to 75,000 people eking out a survival in a town under near-complete blockade and frequent bombing by Bosnian Serb forces. Their health system consisted of two general practitioners and no medical supplies (no aspirin or bandages, let alone heavy duty pain killers). Under these conditions over nine months, he performed 1,400 surgeries, among them countless amputations. Although he didn’t know it at the time, in July 1995, the town would finally fall to the Bosnian Serbs forces who killed some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would later deem these murders to constitute genocide.

Clinton’s words left Maas filled with disgust and a new sense of his own complicity in the betrayal: “President Clinton was making hypocrites of us all, and there was very little that could be done about it.” Another journalist who covered the war in Bosnia, David Rieff, also watched the opening of the USHMM in 1993 with disbelief, writing: “To utter words like ‘Never again,’ as Clinton did at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, was to take vacuity over the border into obscenity as long as the genocide in Bosnia was going on and Clinton was doing nothing to stop it. His words were literally meaningless. For if there was to be no intervention to stop a genocide that was taking place, then the phrase ‘Never again’ meant nothing more than: ‘never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s” (Rieff, 27). It was an expression that would be made only more painfully true when, a year later in Rwanda, genocide would be enacted with harrowing speed and brutality.

Of course, Pres. Clinton was not the only speaker than morning. Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate, also rose to the podium. He spoke of his own community of Hungarian Jews, some of the last European Jews to be deported to death camps, who were not even warned of, let alone helped to escape, their impending fate even well after world leaders knew what was happening in the death camps. Illustrating this point, Wiesel described a woman who questioned, upon learning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, asked why the Jews did not quietly await the war’s end. He spoke of why the museum was necessary, even as he questioned what the world had learned since Holocaust.

As the rain fell during Wiesel’s speech, his notes blurred. He turned away from his prepared remarks and addressing President Clinton directly about what he had witnessed not decades ago, but only months beforehand when he visited a Bosnian Serb-run concentration camp. Wiesel stated: “Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall…As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”

Then Wiesel concluded his address by returning to the woman from the Hungarian Jewish community: “The woman in the Carpathian Mountain of whom I spoke to you, that woman disappeared. She was my mother.”

This was a human rights intervention whose power emerged from Wiesel’s personal testimony of loss. No other Holocaust story can substitute for this one—against the backdrop of overwhelming history, Wiesel’s call to re-imagine today began and ended with the unbearable loss of one person.

Herein lies the human rights potential of memorial museums: they provide a unique, unexpected and powerful intervention by asserting that the most lofty human aspirations cannot be reduced to beautiful expressions, norm-building or treaty signatures, but must also honor the singular experiences of individuals. In this way, the memorial component of human rights foregrounds the instability of any attempt, even those undertaken in the name of human rights, to ease the trade-offs between aspirations and individual suffering.

While Wiesel’s provocation cannot be understood absent the particular circumstances of Holocaust memorialization and contemporary genocide, the inherent potential of museums to spark new forms of human rights activism is not limited to this framework. In the years since 1993, we have seen museums increasingly testing the waters of engagement on human rights issues.

The practice of visiting sites marked by relation to death is not new. Recall centuries of religious pilgrimage sites associated with the deaths of important figures or war memorials. Nor is the mood of such sites always educational or reverential, as witnessed by torture museums, places associated with famous and often grisly murders, or even ghost tours. Study of this broadly defined phenomenon has begun fairly recently, described as thanatourism (Seaton) or “dark tourism” (Stone), and recognizes that the social, cultural and political framework for the various models and practices vary greatly. We are interested in what have been termed museums addressing “human suffering” (Duffy), and human rights, in addition to memorial museums. The institutions that fall into these categories share in common a sense that the suffering they explore has social and historical meaning often embedded within an imperative to end the violence—and thereby have an inherent political meaning as well–while also emphasizing the need to honor the individual victims.

The increased saliency of memorialization and museums is attested to by the number of memorial museums, museums dedicated to specific moments of often state-sponsored violence and to memorializing victims and new articulations and coalitions to support activist models for museums, like the 2009 Declaration of Museum Responsibility to Promote Human Rights and 2010 Declaration on Museums and Politics, Federation of International Human Rights Museums (2009) and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (1999). It is also evident in the continuing work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, particularly its Committee on Conscience which is dedicated to issues of contemporary genocide, and where I worked for ten years.

As Paul Williams notes in Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities, the memorial museum as a particular form built on a handful of earlier models like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (1955), Maison des Esclaves (1978), Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes (1980), the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum (1985) and Musee Memorial pour La Paix (1988). Today examples can be found on every continent, dedicated to diverse historical events: slavery, apartheid, genocide, terrorism (state sponsored or not), totalitarianism and more.  In 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience was created by the District Six Museum (South Africa); Gulag Museum (Russia); Liberation War Museum (Bangladesh); Lower East Side Tenement Museum (USA); Maison Des Esclaves (Senegal); National Park Service (USA); Memoria Abierta (Argentina); Terezin Memorial (Czech Republic); and the Workhouse (United Kingdom). The Coalition was founded in a shared belief in “the obligation of historic sites to assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our sites and their contemporary implications.  We view stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting humanitarian and democratic values as a primary function.”

A sign that the form had come of age, in July 2001, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an international museum professionals’ organization created in 1946 that has a consultative status with UNESCO, created an International Committee of Memorial Museums in Remembrance of the Victims of Public Crimes. They define the purpose of Memorial Museums as commemorating “victims of State, socially determined and ideologically motivated crimes.” They further note the connection between historical sites, the engagement of survivor or victim communities in the museums, and the emphasis on conveying “information about historical events in a way which retains a historical perspective while also making strong links to the present.”

A similar articulation of engagement has come more recently in the form of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM), established in 2010. The federation states that it aims to enable “museums which deal with sensitive and controversial subjects such as transatlantic slavery, the Holocaust and human rights to work together and share new thinking and initiatives in a supportive environment.” David Fleming, director of the National Museums Liverpool and one of the prime movers of this effort, has argued that museums can seek “to transform visitors by opening up new lines of thought, by revealing often hidden truths, by demonstrating human immorality and suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that there has to be an alternative.”

The rise of museums as a forum for approaching difficult histories in the context of today’s most pressing political and social questions stems from a number of factors, not least of which is the industry’s need to articulate its relevance for very practical reasons. The success of this kind of human rights activism is not assured, as attested by the difficulties the Canadian Human Rights Museum has faced. But there is undeniable momentum behind this trend and it is powered by the way it responds to a real need of our time. As Andreas Huyssen argues: “In our century, different political versions of some better future have done fierce battle with each other, but the quintessentially modern notion of the future as progress or utopia was shared by all. It no longer is” (Huyssen, 8). At the beginning of the 21st century, it is simply too late to believe that our maps for progress, even those grounded in human rights norms, do not also leave a trail of monumental suffering in their wake.

This is why human rights need memorial practices. Human rights memorials and memorial museums, of necessity and of design, split memory in half: honoring the painful experiences of those who suffered abuse and rekindling the aspirations of a society to reject acceptance of such suffering. Memorials assert that the schism cannot be made whole again; it must be lived with or else suffered anew.

Works Referenced

Duffy, Terrence. “Museums of ‘Human Suffering’ and the Struggle for Human Rights,” Museum International 53:1 (2001), pp 10 – 16.

Huyssen, Andreas. Twilight Memories: Marking time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge) 1995.

Peter Maas.  Love Thy Neighbor (Random House: New York, 1996).

Rieff, David. Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Shuster) 1995.

Seaton, A.V. “Guided by the Dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism,” International Journal of Heritage of Studies, 2:4 (1996), pp. 234 – 244.

Stone, P.R “A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions,” TOURISM: An Interdisciplinary International Journal 52:2 (2006), pp. 145-160

Williams, Paul. Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers) 2007.

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One Response to Why human rights need memorials

  1. Judy Kirk says:

    This is the best written article I have read on why we build Museums to honor horrific events. It also reminds my of how little was done to stop the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries. Is it, perhaps, the lack of OIL under the ground that makes them less important?
    People need to be allowed to live no matter how rich the country. No ruler should be free to murder to retain power.

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