Tag Archives: Susan Sontag

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.


Core course week 5: Museums of medicine and war

25 Nov
Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Territory closer to home (indeed I wasn’t expecting to see screenshots from my own website in the presentation) with Suzannah Biernoff in the fifth week of the core course, who presented two contrasting exhibits about war and medicine in the context of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.

Specifically, Suzannah focused on the relationship between art and war; its power to ameliorate the horror of combat, and the changing assumptions about what it is appropriate, or nor appropriate, to look at. The key questions she put before us were:

  • When we encounter medical images, what kind of cultural and imaginative work do they perform?
  • What do these images mean in the context of medical history?
  • Are there ethical issues raised these images redeployment as art, education or entertainment

The first exhibition under consideration was Wellcome Collection’s War and Medicine. As the public face of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Collection is not merely an art gallery but also apparently carries some responsibility for publicising the Trust’s work and engaging the public with science. However, War and Medicine carried ‘no straightforward curatorial agenda or message’. Instead, it addressed the dilemmas of medicine in a time of war through a combination of testimony and the juxtaposition of art with scientific and medical objects.

Testimony in medicine is a departure from the enlightenment tradition of the analysis and display of disembodied specimens (here Suzannah namechecked Karen Ingham’s Narrative Remains – unless I simply interpolated that in my notes – as an imaginative work returning subjectivity to the scientific specimen) and medical museums in general are moving away from the standpoint of clinical objectivity.

The exhibition also complicated the idea of progress through bloodshed and exposed the paradox of improving our own health in order to inflict physical damage on our enemies (an issue also touched on by Roger Cooter in his article ‘War and Modern Medicine’ in the Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine). Suzannah suggested though, that the exhibition might have also limited the impact war’s horror through its (possibly vorticist-influenced) design, being perhaps ‘elegantly upsetting’.

In its juxtaposition of art and artifact, Medicine and War begged the question of what art brings to the context. Sexing up, or deeper engagement? Is it to do with Heaney’s ‘Redress of Poetry’, a spiritual balance restored by art, or more to do with mutual illumination, art and science (in the form of medical artifact) throwing each other into productive relief (rather than art merely illustrating or highlighting scientific progress)?

The second exhibition Suzannah presented was the National Army Museum’s Faces of Battle, based on the Gillies Archive, a private surgeon’s own archive of his facial reconstruction work on WWI servicemen. Their status as a non-public archive (therefore not governed by the UK government’s 100-year disclosure rules) is the kind of anomaly that dictates the availability of medical material like this. The exhibition was part of the larger (and also Wellcome Trust-funded) Project Façade, a project by artist Paddy Hartley which deals with the Gillies archive.

Faces of Battle had a clearer curatorial narrative than War and Medicine, making the connections between heroic sacrifice and medical progress clear through the work of Gillies. The exhibition had a different feel to Medicine and War, encouraging emotion rather than reflection or the changing of minds; its location in an army museum rather than a central London gallery also conditioned to some extent the responses generated by it.

Suzannah suggested a diversion of curatorial aims at work. Where Faces of Battle was raw and polarised feelings (some couldn’t stand to be with the images of disfigured soldiers for long), War and Medicine encouraged critical reflection. Both, however, represent two prevalent trends in contemporary medical exhibitions: a turn toward biography and the juxtaposition of art with medicine as a spur to contemplation.

The issue of the limits of the use of medical images, however, emerges in some uses of the Gillies archive that are less tasteful. The revelation that ‘baddie’ characters in the game Bioshock based on recognisable photos of individual servicemen from the Gillies Archive makes you pause to wonder whether indeed these images ought to be protected in some way, and leads us back ultimately to Sontag’s question of what purpose there is in looking at the images of others’ pain.