Tag Archives: memory

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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Core course week 4: Museums of difficult memory

9 Nov
Atrium of the Women's Jail in Johannesburg

Atrium of the Women's Jail in Johannesburg

Notes from class: 26th October 2010

The fourth week of the core course was taken by Annie Coombes, who plays Museum Cultures’ godmother to Fiona and Gabriel’s mum and dad. Though her set reading was in the realm of the holocaust and the modern art museum (texts from Andreas Huyssen’s Twilight Memories and James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory), Annie’s own work concentrates on museums that deal with traumatic national memories, specifically in South Africa and Kenya. Her presentation concentrated on South Africa, the trial of those responsible for the murder of the Gugulethu Seven, and the Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, now a museum.

Annie presented her key issues as:

  • What means are available in the museum (or any other kind of commemorative project) for representing histories of violence, conflict and pain?
  • How do you represent violence without reproducing it, re-subjecting its erstwhile victims to it again?
  • Is there any way to avoid turning the pain of others into a spectacle?
  • Is it possible to make traumatic experiences accessible to those who haven’t experienced them?
  • Is it possible for us, as the spectators of other’s pain, to view it ethically, and avoid voyeurism?

On this last, Annie referenced Gayatri Spivak’s warning against privileged viewers’ narcissistic identification with the pain of the oppressed; in the context of exhibiting others’ pain, she also discussed James Allen’s exhibition of lynching postcards, Without Sanctuary.

She played a couple of films. Firstly, a clip from a demo tape by Barry Feinberg of testimony from women involved in the South African freedom struggle; secondly a pair of clips from Long Night’s Journey into Day, a documentary about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which the mothers of the Gugulethu Seven first saw footage of their sons’ brutal murder, and then angrily confronted a former policeman about his involvement. She asked how a museum might similarly embody such contradictory, redemptive and personal remembrances of struggle.

Lastly, she presented some documentation of the Women’s Jail. The curatorial team that put together the museum/memorial environment here consisted of a historian, 2 (male) artists and a former prisoner. There are no reconstructions; in the grounds there are photos on glass of some of the women who were imprisoned there. Some of the isolation cells contain more elaborate installations, featuring video testimony and objects chosen by former prisoners as symbols of their struggle and incarceration (a wedding dress one never got to wore, for example). Issues of (sexual) abuse in the jail are dealt with more obliquely; much is made, for instance of underwear, and the denial of adequate sanitary protection; but these also stand proxy for darker, unmentioned crimes.

The issue of personal identification in the museum environment was again raised: at the Apartheid Museum, for instance, one is offered the choice to enter as black or white (a choice never possible in the history of apartheid); the opportunity to carry the card of a holocaust victim at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was also discussed (though my notes show no mention of exhortations to identification) as a strategy against the anonymising force of the death camps themselves.

A question came up at the end about how one might address the humanity of the perpetrators of crimes like apartheid. It struck me as more germane to wonder whether memorials to struggle can only be constructed when the struggle has been won. The testimony of women who put everything on the line for their role in the struggle is made both moving and worthy of memorial by the fact that the ANC prevailed. How could we construct a memorial to the struggle of the Weather Underground; how could we present the experience of Cathy Wilkerson, who similarly threw her life into a struggle, but who finally came to the conclusion that she was wrong? Where is the museum of lost causes?

The Museum of Communism?

9 Aug
Mur des Fédérés

Mur des Fédérés by 피엡, on Flickr

Thus, Benedict Anderson on the specifically nationalist significance of tombs of unknown soldiers:

“The cultural significance of such monuments becomes even clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a tomb of the unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals. Is a sense of absurdity unavoidable? The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism is much concerned with death and immortality.”

Now, I can’t speak for liberals. But public sculpture celebrating the victory of anonymous communist workers and soldiers were as much part of the monumental stock-in-trade of the old Eastern Bloc states as statues of Lenin. From Budapest’s Statue Park to Berlin’s Russian war memorial, idealised workers and soldiers are among the archetypal symbols of communist regimes.

I might be stretching Anderson’s point about anonymity too far. And these also, it might be argued, celebrate regimes as much as ideology: all Hungarian monuments are woven into one fabric of patriotic sorrow; the Russian war memorials celebrate imperial dominance rather than communist fraternity.

But then there is the the Mur des Fédérés, in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The wall against which the last of the communards of 1871 were shot has become an international memorial (as celebrated in Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance) for the labour movement. It was not created to maintain or justify the regime of the Commune (which was crushed) but rather insisted upon by the renascent French workers’ movement. Though the fallen may be known, they’re not named by the memorial; perhaps the Fédérés are international socialism’s unknown soldiers?