Below is an excerpt from my chapter in the newly published volume The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and Its Discontents, ed. by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus.
On April 22, 1993, President Bill Clinton stood at the podium erected in front of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Addressing a crowd of dignitaries assembled for the museum’s opening, he stated: “[E]ven 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.” (Clinton 1993).
Across an ocean in southern Europe, the brutal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the newly independent states carved out of the former Yugoslavia, was entering its second year of what became known as “ethnic cleansing” in full force. And on that same April day, in Tuzla, a Bosnian government-held town, the 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” (1996, 242).
Maas spent three hours that day interviewing Dr. Nedret Mujkanovic, who had fled along with some of the injured from the besieged town of Srebrenica. Mujkanovic’s work in Srebrenica included tending to some sixty thousand 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 fourteen hundred 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 eight thousand Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would later decide these murders were 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” (Maas 1996, 246). 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 1996, 27)
President Clinton was not the only speaker that rainy morning in Washington. Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate, also rose to the podium. He spoke of his experiences during the Holocaust. His family was among the Hungarian Jews, some of the last European Jews to be deported to death camps, well after world leaders knew what was happening and yet chose not—at a minimum—even to warn them of their fate. Raindrops blurred the ink on Wiesel’s papers; he turned away from his prepared remarks to address President Clinton directly. Now he spoke of what he had witnessed 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” (Wiesel 1993).
And thus, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was opened to the public.
It is no accident that a museum would provide the context for an unexpected and powerful human rights intervention. And, although 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, museums are increasingly testing the waters of engagement on human rights issues.
Returning to the opening scene at the USHMM as our grounding example, I question what museums, given their particular strengths and weaknesses, can uniquely contribute to human rights discourse. This example is unique in important ways, both in terms of the particular place of the Holocaust as a historical event, as well as the landmark position the USHMM occupies on the landscape of Holocaust memorialization and museum practices. It is also an example that I know well, having worked at the museum in its Committee on Conscience (COC), dedicated to issues of contemporary genocide, for ten years.[i] By placing this one example in the context of evolving debates about museums and rights as a model of political contestation, one can begin to see how the issues it raises are relevant to broader debates about the future of museums and their potential to offer a unique contribution to human rights practices.
[i] The creation of such a committee was recommended by the 1979 Report of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, the foundational document for the USHMM. It argued that a “memorial unresponsive to the future would [also] violate the memory of the past.” However, the COC was not formed until 1995 and not staffed until 1999. I began working there two years later. See http://www.ushmm.org/genocide/. Please note that all of the opinions expressed in this chapter are mine alone and should not be mistaken as official USHMM positions.