Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Memorials, Museums, and Each of Us

At the AAM conference this year I was privileged to be a member of a panel in a session, Interpreting Human Tragedy:  In Memoriam,  which sprang from last fall's issue of Exhibitionist on the same topic for which we had all written. Stacey Mann of Night Kitchen Interactive took the lead in organizing our session.  I joined Stacey,   Danny M. Cohen, Ph. D. of Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy; Ian Kerrigan, Assistant Director of Exhibition Development at the National September 11 Memorial Museum and Wendy Aibel-Weiss, Director of Exhibits and Education, Tribute WTC Visitors Center.

We really wanted this session to be a conversation,  so Stacey encouraged us to take a leap of faith and not do any sort of formal papers or presentations.  In several conference calls, we brainstormed questions that were interesting to us, and we hoped interesting to an audience.  Stacey began with a brief framing of the issues-which included an invitation to the audience to ask questions at any time--and turned to us,  squished together on the tiny stage, and began asking questions.    

It was so gratifying to have people come up to the microphone and ask such thoughtful questions, and to feel that our own thinking out loud, pondering responses, perhaps provides a better model for our work than the reading of papers.  So here, a recap of key ideas/questions and comments,  as they came forth in the session.  It's a long post,  but I hope worth reading.   Please continue the conversation by sharing your comments below and many, many thanks to Stacey, Ian,  Danny,  Wendy, and all of you who participated (and shared via your tweets.)

We talked about how memorials can tell stories...but importantly,  as Ian mentioned, that these museums take memories combined with,  as he put it,  "agreed-upon facts."  But those agreed-upon facts often feel a burden, as it is becomes a way of codifying history.  The challenge in the 9/11 museum, opening later this year, is to share, to audiences, the event that changed the world as we know it.  And with a changing world, how to design for future audiences and events.  But Danny reminded us,  that "ownership" of events often leads to definitions that may exclude other groups and other narratives.

Place really matters...the fact that an event, whatever it is, happened here.  So Holocaust museums in the United States or elsewhere outside Europe, or in my own experience, the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv vs. actually visiting Chernobyl,  are entirely different experiences and mean entirely different things to visitors.  Place is powerful.

That discussion of place led to a consideration of these places of tragedy as sacred spaces--and the struggle many have with cell phone pictures,  teenagers giggling and the like.  Danny, whose deep experience in Holocaust education brought a broad perspective to our conversation, mentioned two important responses to what some seem as inappropriate behavior. One, that many survivors comment that they're okay with the noisy groups of young people--that those young people are alive, representing the future denied so many;  that it can be seen as almost a joyful affirmation/antidote to the tragedy.  Second,  he reminded us that these are often traumatizing sites or exhibits and what seem to be inappropriate responses are really coping mechanisms.

And then the questions really began from the audience.   One asked about the inclusion of images of dead bodies in an exhibit on the Armenian genocide.  Should the images be shown in a way that you have to make a choice to see, as at the Holocaust Museum in DC?  Are there other approaches?   The purpose of these images may be only to shock or provoke, and as a learning scientist,  Danny feels strongly that provocation is harmful to a real learning process.  The goal, in a thoughtful, reflective museum, should be to move a visitor from a purely emotional response to an intellectual, reflective, analytical response.  Mere shock never does that.

A staff member from a military museum asked about issues of including the enemy,  particularly in exhibitions about recent US wars--and how to depict the enemy.  Danny asked how often, for instance,  exhibitions about the Holocaust show Nazis in any way but in uniform.  He reminded us that these were people, with families, with emotions--that by showing them only in uniform, we may wiggle out of the consideration of our own human responsibility. 

A question about interpreting the site of a Native American massacre brought conversation--and many shared ideas from the audience-- about  the responsibility of the victors, whoever they may be, in interpreting history--a museum's responsibility of balance to create an exhibition that really provides, through the active involvement of communities affected,  multiple perspectives.  From a 19th century event in the American West to African revolutions...for an exhibit about social media and African revolutions,  the question, "can we trust social media to properly document revolution?"   From someone on our panel (ah, my note-taking fails me),  the idea that we have to trust that our visitors are capable of the same question--and of thinking about the answers.  Perhaps those questions can be asked of the exhibit's visitors.

And a question for us about what the take-away message of memorials and memorial museums could or should be.  As a group, we tried to puzzle out an answer.  The first phase of a project might be memorialization, often driven by what the victims feel is appropriate.  The second might be education--just that our audiences gain basic knowledge and facts.  But the third stage is how we inspire action,  how to ensure that we, as individuals, as I somewhat inelegantly phrased it,  make a decision about whether we are Oskar Schindler or wimps. 

I'd been procrastinating about writing this post, worried about doing justice to the thoughtful panelists and audience members, but today I was reminded how important this work can be when I read this NY Times article about the extremely ad hoc, personal,  dangerous, underground--and inspiring-- efforts underway by Syrian citizens to provide food, shelter, medical care and other support to Syrian communities under attack by their own government.  Said one university student involved in the work, “All our lives we were raised to be afraid. But you get to a point where you realize you are strong because you can speak and do.”    

And of course, as museums, we have powerful voices to raise. We can also be strong because we can speak and do.

Image:  Memorial gate, where people from all over the world have left momentos to honor the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist hijacking of Flight 93. Shanksville, Pennsylvania by Carol Highsmith,  Library of Congress collection


UALPHLCS said...

Linda, this was one of the best sessions at the Conference. I think it would be very interesting to here from the perspectives of Memorial sites that are much older than the 60 years of the WWII era museums and memorials. We talked afterward about an collaboration between a US Military Museum and one based on Soviet and Eastern perspective.

Linda said...

Hi Bryan--thanks for commenting--and yes, I think there's some interesting discussions to continue. And, if you're really interested in considering a Soviet/US collaboration, which would be fascinating, I'm happy to make an introduction...email me directly and let me know.

Rye History said...

Thank you for posting this. I'm sorry that I wasn't at AAM to hear this discussion. In January, I had the great privilege of attending JHU's seminar in Berlin. We visited many of the memorial sites there. The experiences were deeply moving, and deeply disturbing. We were very bothered by young people laughing and playing around the Holocaust Memorial. It seemed so disrespectful and so distracting for other visitors. I must confess that I didn't see any positive aspects of this behavior. I can understand intellectually the comment at AAM about lively young people bringing hope where there is such despair, but I still felt that the holiness of the site required reverence.

Ruth Cuadra said...

Linda, it was a pleasure to meet you at this session and I very much appreciate your summary of the interesting and useful discussion in this post. I was so engrossed in the conversation, I didn't take my own notes! ... I must agree with my JHU colleague, Rye History, about the distracting and often disrespectful behavior of so many people, young and old, at memorial sites. What do you think museums can do to help educate such visitors about how their behavior affects others? It occurs to me that people don't necessarily know what to do with their feelings in such situations. We don't want to tell them how or what to feel, but it seems to me that some kind of guidance might help everyone.

Linda said...

Ruth and Rye History--

Ruth--great to meet you as well! I was sort of madly trying to take notes while listening and hoped I captured much of it, and we're thinking about how else to share the conversation, in an article perhaps. Danny's point about the giggling, etc being an emotional reaction is a really interesting one, I think, and I'm hoping to learn--and share--a bit more from him about how we can encourage people of any age to a more thoughtful, reflective approach to these sites.

Ruth Cuadra said...

Danny's comment about giggling was indeed very insightful. It reminded me of the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode about the death of Chuckles the Clown. Mary laughs uncontrollably during the funeral. Her co-workers are shocked but the minister tells her that her laughter was in keeping with Chuckles' life. The idea that survivors might see laughter as evidence of continued life is also worth remembering.

Seth Frankel said...


Thanks for your post and participation in this session. It was one of the stronger sessions this year. I welcome you to check out my blog posting about it as well. It's at http://studiotectonic.com/design/exhibits/aam-2012-minneapolis-day-2-monday-exhibiting-human-tragedy.

The following day there was a compelling session moderated by the ED of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience which focused on measuring the impact of memorial sites on their audiences. Between these two sessions my personal AAM theme was pretty well defined!

I'd very much like to participate in more engaged thinking about the role of memorials and exhibitry in how we frame human tragedy...and our interpretation of its meaning.

Best to you.