Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reminders of Our Failures

Finally, back to posting about our session earlier this month at the TICCIH conference. I was privileged to be on a panel with Moulshri Joshi, a member of the architectural team who won the competition award for plans for a memorial at the site of the Union Carbide gas tragedy in Bhopal, India.

In her passionate presentation, she raised some provocative questions:
  • Can our understanding of heritage be extended to include reminders of our failures as well as tokens of our past glories?
  • Is the attempt to eradicate symbols of failure and suffering effectively a selective overwriting of history, in order to construct a more appropriate collection identity?
  • How inclusive are our notions of the collective identity which we seek to preserve and how far such an identity would represent narratives of the marginalized?
The challenges at Bhopal are many. The site is still contaminated and the city is rapidly encroaching. There are competing ideas about how the site should be used: should funds be used to improve the lives of those affected by the tragedy still living in poverty? What should the memorial be like? A park? a monument? And it will probably be years before any scheme is completed. But I found much in common between Bhopal and Chernobyl.

My own talk was framed around the ways in which the disaster at the Chernobyl is interpreted and presented both at Chernobyl itself, at the Chernobyl museum in Kyiv, and at the information center in Slavutich and online at, a website operated by former residents of Pripyat, the abandoned city near Chernobyl. All of these sites are different, telling different stories. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat itself, it's left to the visitor to make sense of the story. It is a place of highly individualistic meaning-making. At the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv, it seems to me to be primarily a memorial story; in Slavutich, the city built to replace Pripyat, the story is one of the plant and those who worked there--and a memorial to them as well.

In thinking about my presentation, I drew on the work of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, to consider the ways in which these sites of tragedy--of failure, as Moulshri notes--could provide a place for discussion and conversation about not just the past, but the future. These sites are everything but easy. The Coalition's work addresses questions such as:
  • How can sites like these both acknowledge private experiences and encourage public participation?
  • What reactions do sites like these engender: memory, horror, voyeurism, fear, action?
  • Can museums or sites that encourage discussion be state-run or must they be independent?
  • How, and should, multiple perspectives be shown at these sites?
  • How will these memorials involve new generations who have no memory of the event?
When I worked with photographer Michael Forster Rothbart on his Chernobyl exhibit in Kyiv Kyiv last spring, we conducted visitor evaluations. Some results from our (admittedly unscientific) survey (and special thanks to Natasha and all the volunteers for all their work on collecting and translating these). One question--before you visited this exhibit, what thoughts came to mind? Some of the answers:
  • Radiation
  • Sad, frightening and hopeful
  • Danger
  • The place of lost technologies
  • Nothing good, ecological catastrophe
  • I was there, nothing good
  • Suffering of the whole world
  • Ukraine is not Chernobyl
Think of the challenges of developing a museum, exhibit or memorial around visitor reactions like that. It's very unusual in Ukraine for audiences to be asked what they would like to see in an exhibit. When we asked about what other information viewers would like presented in an exhibit (particularly to foreigners), here's some of the answers:
  • That it might affect people right now
  • To remind us of what we already know all the time.
  • We know enough [visitor from Italy]
  • More truthful information, all the information available
  • Show foreigners that Ukraine is not the country of freaks
  • The info is shown from one side, but there was a lot of horror as well
  • Information about people who died protecting others. Foreigners should know the truth
  • Everything, the more the better
That last comment, "the more the better," is the take-away for me from this conference session and my talented colleagues. The more we share, talk, discuss, and debate both our successes and failures, whether it's industrial history or any other kind of history, the greater the chances are for understanding and change. Museums and historic sites have unique opportunities to be this kind of space. A space where transparency matters.

Top: Union Carbide plant, Bhopal, from jphangoo on Flickr.
Center and bottom: Pripyat, Ukraine

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