Saturday, September 25, 2010

More Questions than Answers

From the AASLH conference blog.  Be sure and check out all the blog entries for a great sense of the conference and the lively conversations that took place here.

My idea of a great session is one that leaves me with more questions than answers.   Particularly in these days of immediate access to all kinds of information I don't view conference sessions as how-tos as much as places that stimulate new thinking.   Yesterday afternoon's session, Dealing with Tragedy:  Museums and Memorialization was just that.    The issues related to three different tragedies and their subsequent memorials and museum presentations were discussed:  the Oklahoma City bombing;  the Columbine shootings and September 11.   The situations were also quite different for the museums:  the memorial and museum here is created on the site;  the Littleton Historical Society's exhibit on Columbine was presented as a part of a local community story, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History looked at September 11 within a broad national context.

At the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, 350 community members helped write the mission which is, "We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity."   It does that effectively, but on my visit to the museum, I was struck by what it didn't do, also an issue addressed by historian Bill Bryans.    It doesn't really explain the why,  in part because family members, who played a significant role in shaping the memorial and museum, felt that to do so gave voice to the perpetrators.   But, as Bryans noted, over time, the question of why becomes more important.

Marilyn Zoldis,  who had worked at the Smithsonian on the September 11 exhibit set forth a set of questions they considered as they developed the September 11 exhibit:

what role should a museum play in an event such as this?  what public expectations do we face?  what responsibilities do we face?  how do we establish and maintain historical perspective?  how do we deal with emotions?  how do we maintain historical objectivity in a time of crisis?

Great questions all--and out of the following discussion came more questions for me.
  • Should memorials and museums be differentiated?
  • How do we define a "sacred space?"   and does that harken back to Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address in our American sensibility?
  • Do these particular events, ones that happen almost in the blink of an eye,  lend themselves more easily to museums and memorials than events than unfold more slowly, such as this summer's oil spill?
  • Has a 24 hour news cycle, twitter and the immediacy of the web shaped the public's interest and perspective on events like these?  What role then, do museums play in peeling back the onion of the media's coverage?
  • And finally,  how can these museums/exhibits/memorials be places where we not only remember and grieve, but gain understandings and create change in the world?   I think that comes from looking at the whys of terrorism (state-sponsored or not)  straight in the face, as places like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam do every day.
Thanks to these session presenters for their compassion and frankness.


Samantha said...

What role should a museum play in an event such as this?

To me, a museum can be a safe, inviting place that will allow visitors the opportunity to reflect, grieve and look forward after the experiencing the events you described.

Linda said...

Thanks Samantha for your comment--I agree, but somehow this museum didn't quite do those things for me. I thought there was too much video footage of death and destruction (with a great deal of audio overlap) and strangely, in small quiet rooms where you could listen to survivor or family stories there was only one stool, despite the fact that few people visited the museum alone. And looking forward--I wanted some understanding or some way to be involved in change as a forward look, not just an ending quote telling me I'd been changed by walking through. For instance, the Holocaust Museum's current exhibit effort about contemporary genocide made me more aware of what I could do. I thought the memorial part of the experience was touching and reflective; the museum, confusing and a bit frustrating to me--though as we know all too well, every visitor has a different experience. Have you been to here and what did you think?

Lindsey Baker said...


I'm sure you know about this already, but for some of your readers who might not be aware of it, The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is an organization that might help as we think about how museums can deal with these issues.

Their link is: