Saturday, July 8, 2017

"I am an activist" From Walden to Sites of Conscience


This Fourth of July celebration seemed different than others, somehow.  My social media feeds were filled with reminders of both the potential of the United States (tweeting the Declaration of Independence) and of the distance we still have to go (Frederick Douglass' 1852 Fourth of July speech in Rochester, NY).  Reading those tweets and speeches pushed me to finally write a small bit about my experiences with International Coalition Sites of Conscience members at our Africa and Middle East and North Africa meetings in May. Those two weeks were deeply meaningful to me as an introduction to Coalition members' work around the world. Whether it was sitting by the water in Tunis, drinking tea late at night or somberly trying to make sense together of a visit to a genocide memorial, those connections will long resonate for me. Somehow those reflections had the unexpected result of bringing me back around to an exhibition at the Morgan Library, just down the block from my office in New York City.

So let's start at the exhibit. It's This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, featuring Henry David Thoreau's journals along with a stellar collection of Thoreau-related artifacts, many from the Concord Museum, where the show will travel later this year.  Thoreau kept a journal---lots of journals, filled with all kinds of things, from the weather to politics.

In the exhibit, big quotations on the wall pull you in to learn more.  And somehow, although I knew this exhibition has been in the planning for quite some time, the quotes seemed incredibly timely.


As I looked at the lock and key from the Concord jail where he spent one single night for his failure to pay the poll tax, I read this quotation,  "I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."  That simple quote led me back to my colleagues in Africa and the Middle East.


Before I began work at the Coalition, I thought of Sites of Conscience in primarily US-focused terms: sites like Lincoln's Cottage, or the Levine and Wing Luke Museums, or national parks like Seneca Falls and Manzanar.  These are organizations that operate as relatively traditional (but inspirational) museums. But many of our Coalition members have come to memory work, the work of archives, museums and memory, from very different places and their organizations are often very young.  I'm just beginning to puzzle out how to share the vital knowledge and practice of these new organizations with the more traditional museum field in the US and elsewhere, in ways that may have the potential to transform our museum practice. And of course, at the same time, I'm working to find more ways to assist all of our members around the world in building on their own strengths.


Here's a bit of what I've been thinking (in no particular cohesive framework--I'm still thinking!).

Because many people working in these organizations come from human rights, social activism, law, and other fields, the gatherings represent a diversity of perspectives not always found in US museum work. It's a reminder that by privileging the knowledge of a museum studies graduate degree, we lose out on important knowledge, skills and perspectives. 

I was reminded of the power of archives, even more than artifacts.  Gonzalo Conte, from Memoria Abierta in Argentina, shared their incredible ongoing archival work, integrating oral histories, images, maps and more to build the ongoing work of justice.  Sites everywhere are doing the same--those oral histories and archives are valued for the ways in which they can speak truths, and in so doing, build justice and reconciliation.  But archives are only valuable when they are accessible. 


When we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which includes the mass grave of 250,000 Rwandans murdered during the 1994 genocide, I found myself balancing between the absorption of complicated information and emotion.  That challenge exists in almost every history exhibit, and the experience is different for every visitor. There are no easy answers, but as exhibition developers, working with those whose story we are telling is critical.  We know this, yet too often we neglect it. We need to find more ways to make those voices heard and more ways to support museum staff who work every day with trauma.  The Memorial seems to do an exemplary job of supporting both staff and visitors.


And lastly, I went away from both meetings struck by the potential power of museums and historic places that are sites of conscience.  In Tunis, we stopped at the site of the former 9th of April Prison (above), now a dusty parking lot and a place where our Tunisian members are working to have designated as a memorial or museum. As we stood there, one of the participants moved a bit over, and stood in a place, saying, "This is exactly where my cell was."  I asked how it felt to stand there. He said, "I do not let this define me.  I am not a victim.  I am an activist."

We need more activists in all our museums to keep from settling for the role of, as Thoreau described museums, "catacombs,"  for dead things, rather than places for the living power of change.