Part One: Strategies for creating a heritage of conscience

The question that first brought us together was simple:  how can history promote human rights?  We were museums from wildly different contexts – the District Six Museum in Cape Town, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, Terezin Memorial in Czech Republic, among others.  Our answers varied widely, but revealed a common belief in the power of the past to promote lasting cultures of human rights.  To harness that power, we joined forces as the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.  Now, this experience is informing a new challenge: the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, an effort to build international public awareness of the long history of the US Naval base and foster dialogue on the future of its people and policies.  I think the issues Sites of Conscience and the Guantánamo Public Memory Project face – and the promise they hold – can be relevant to memorials in many contexts.

In the years that followed the Coalition’s founding, hundreds of historic sites, archives, memorials, and museums have joined the movement to make memory an intentional tool in building just societies.  Many share a common ethic of “Never Again” – the idea that we must remember the past in order to prevent atrocities from recurring. However, the group had also had enough experience to recognize that the connection between remembering past atrocity and fighting human rights abuse in the present was far from automatic.  While “Never Again” has become a mantra of memorials from Berlin to Buenos Aires, this group sought to develop a framework that would critically analyze the relationships between memory and action, and identify specific strategies for sites in different political contexts to play a more intentional role in addressing current social issues. For many Sites of Conscience, the most important step in achieving “Never Again” is to build a culture of accountability:  a guarantee that people who commit human rights abuses will be punished.  But who do we think needs to be held accountable? A small group of direct perpetrators, a wider set of institutions, or an entire society that allowed them to act? And what role do memorials have to play?

Discussions among the Coalition have suggested that memorials for human rights can seek to build a heritage of conscience:  Such heritage would be based on a collective memory of moral acts and choices, of cruelty, compassion, and courage.  Memorials could offer a space for the ongoing interrogation of the nature of those choices, the reasons for them, and what they suggest for the future.  In other words, human rights memorials can develop a heritage of doing rather than being – an identity based in action.  Not who we were in the past and who we are today, but what we did do in the past and what we want to do today.

This requires not only remembering what we want to prevent, but also the values and ideas that we want to preserve, and everything in between.  It requires the simultaneous celebration, condemnation, and critical analysis of different individual acts – not only remembering past horror.

Some Sites of Conscience have argued that a ‘conscience heritage’ requires paying attention not only to what is to be remembered, but also how. Achieving ‘Never Again’ requires a citizenry and state that takes action to stop abuse before it happens. The challenge to Sites of Conscience is to identify what specific role they can play in fostering that kind of action.  If we imagine Sites as microcosms of civic life, spaces where we can promote the interactions between people we hope to see in society generally, then we need to develop a heritage practice that both helps people remember and encourages them to address the implications of the past for the present. If we want to help people implement diverse visions of democracy on a day-to-day basis – for example, to think critically, or analyze mechanisms of repression and liberation, or engage in non-violent approaches to conflict, or embrace difference – then what would they need to do at our sites?  For example, if we lecture at young people and give them no chance to question the authorities or each other, even if the information we are sharing challenges repressive narratives, would we run the risk that they will remain as passive and disengaged as before?  How could we develop ways of remembering and reminding that move beyond passive learning or reflection, but involve ongoing debate and action? In other words, how can these sites serve as spaces for communities to perform their diverse visions of democracy and a culture of human rights?

At the heart of this active memory framework is dialogue — perhaps the most vigorously debated idea across the Coalition.  Each site is rooted in a different experience of struggles for democracy and human rights; and in different traditions of education, civic engagement, and negotiation of difference.  These shape a range of visions of what forms of engagement among visitors the site is trying to promote. One of the greatest debates about the definition of dialogue is how to raise multiple perspectives without slipping into moral relativism.  In some contexts, ‘stimulating dialogue’ simply means saying things that were never said before – exposing histories that had been suppressed in a society and publicizing them through everything from public tours of a site to media attention. In others, what has been suppressed is debate and dissent: ‘stimulating dialogue’ meant facilitating face-to-face discussions across diverse perspectives about important, unresolved questions in a community. In still others, it meant facilitating exchanges between diverse people about their life experiences and sense of identity in order to promote tolerance and new understanding of difference.

As the final step in building a culture of ‘Never Again’, members felt that Sites of Conscience had a responsibility to encourage visitors to move beyond dialogue towards action. Here again different visions of what kind of action best supported a lasting culture of human rights shaped different visions of the role that sites should play to inspire such action. Should Sites of Conscience be advocates, or open forums? For some it was quite clear that to prevent abuses from recurring, Sites should take public stands protesting any injustices they see happening in the present, and mobilize their publics to take specific action against these injustices.  But others were concerned that this could convert heritage sites into blunt political instruments rather than catalysts of broader democratic and humanitarian values.  Further, if Sites were too prescriptive, telling their visitors what to do and think, then they could actually retrench the very patterns of passivity and lack of critical thinking they were trying to break.

Now, this experience is being brought to bear on a new challenge:  building an international public memory of the US Naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  “Guantánamo” has become an international symbol of torture, detention, national security, and conflict over America’s “War on Terror.” But this “state of exception” in Cuba has been opened – and closed—for more than a century before 9-11.

One Response to Part 1: Thinking Twice about “Never Again”: What it takes to stop atrocities before they start, and how memorials can help

  1. Patrick says:

    Although this may be a noble attempt, there are flaws I see with regard to seeing a causal relationships between memorials and “never again”.

    Humes problem of induction as applied to history.

    Santayana may have said that those who fail to learn for history are doomed to repeat it, however he was only partly right and only within systems which have computable regularity. Simple physical systems lend themselves to knowing cause-effect relationsips, but human systems have many, many factors and actors.

    History seems to be completely predictable when viewed from the present, but this sense we have of “predictability” is wholly unwarranted.

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