Core course week 9 part 1: Museums of remembering

20 Dec
DDR Museum/Stasi Museum by Squid Ink on Flickr

DDR Museum/Stasi Museum by Squid Ink on Flickr

Notes from  class: 30th November 2010

Continuing the interdisciplinary approach to the core course, the Department of European Cultures and Languages lent us Silke Arnold-de Simine, to introduce the idea of memory in the museum, with an emphasis on reconstruction and imaginative empathy; her lecture was perhaps the flipside of Annie Coombes’ session on the fundamental difficulties of any kind of reconstruction at all.

Silke started with Pierre Nora’s idea of ‘lieux de mémoire’ or sites of memory: places that are left where tradition has dissolved and the ‘milieux de mémoire’, or real environments of memory no longer exist. The museum collects, preserves and transfers memories, both collective and individual, but we might do well to ask whose memories are being preserved and for what.

The idea of ‘memory museums’ was also found in Susan Sontag’s writings, particularly in the context of thinking about and mourning the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. We considered some examples of museums that seek to reconstruct historical moments or processes:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Tower of Faces in which photographs from the 1920s and 30s of the inhabitants of the Lithuanian village of Eishishok, who were almost all murdered by Einsatzgruppen in 1941; and also the large photographic image of the liberation of the camps which confronts you at the entrance to the galleries. At the end of the visitor’s passage through the museum they can listen to the testimony of survivors.

The Imperial War Museum’s Blitz Experience which ‘takes children back in time to 1940 and the Blitz’ through the simulation of the war experience: sirens and bomb vibrations.

German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, documenting the experience of 19th century German emigrants to the new world, where visitors don’t just hear the stories of emigrants spoken by actors, but are encouraged to pretend to be emigrants themselves (this kind of thing, the personal bodily re-enactment of history, Silke noted, is more common as an adult activity in Germany than it is in the UK).

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which uses film to tell the narratives of slaves, but which don’t have the status of testimony: an actor is performing words written to typify the experience  of the middle passage rather than directly reporting experience of it.

There’s a complex set of relationships between reconstruction, community memory an empathy here. In the Bremerhaven museum, for example, the subject matter (19th century emigration) belongs to the locality (Bremerhaven as a post from which emigrants left), thought the experience is beyond the living memory of individuals. At the same time, it also feeds a personal connection to North American tourists of German descent.

Discussion opened up in the class. ‘We live in the age of simulation’, opined some:  therefore all narrative media have the ring of fiction. Others suggested that a staged narrative such as a film or play requires the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience, where as a visitor to a museum you remain aware of your own presence (this had echoes of Annie Coombes’ question of whether  a museum could do all of what a film does to tell the stories of individuals involved in political struggle).

In some reconstructive environments, such as South African museums and even Auschwitz, witnesses can act as guides; this isn’t possible for a museum of slavery.

We discussed the instrumentality or otherwise of memory museums: Yad Vashem is oriented so that the visitor’s final view is of the vista across the hills towards Jerusalem, a vindication of the Zionist project; the Liverpool museum lists the name of those who benefited from the slave trade. Also the impact of audiences; while some like Yad Vashem do exist for a ‘memory community’, they also exist for an international ‘dark tourism’, delivering a feeling of horror as a commodity.

Silke’s own research includes work on museums of the former DDR; a space which includes two seemingly mutually exclusive currents: ostalgie, or nostalgia for the social and cultural world of the communist east; and memorialising the injustice of the communist police state. Ostalgie sells t-shirts and model Trabants, but can also be seen to marginalise victims of the regime; nevertheless, the desire to remember and the object of that desire (the DDR) remain identical.

In the end, Silke suggested, perhaps we have to distinguish between the memory museum and the memorial museum, and recognise the more joyful impulses in the former, and the necessary mourning attached to the latter.

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