For the third part in our series “Responding to Tragedy,” that examines different methods of remembering and memorializing the past, we explore “Museums of Memory.” Museums can be used as spaces on reflection, education, and tangible documentation of atrocities. However, historicizing tragedy is just as vital a task as it is difficult. Here are a few different examples of how museums have been utilized to remember and archive human rights violations.
Museo De La Memoria Y Los Derechos Humanos (Santiago, Chile)
The Museo De La Memoria Y Los Derechos Humans (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) is located in Santiago, Chile and is meant to commemorate the victims of human rights violations as a consequence of the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1990. The museum was inaugurated in 2010 by the former president of Chile, Michele Bachelet, who herself was detained and tortured during the Pinochet dictatorship. The museum is a strikingly modern green building consisting of mostly windows. This design is said to evoke transparency, as light overflows into the galleries. The exhibits themselves include archival evidence such as legal documents, personal accounts, and audiovisual evidence of those who have disappeared. This museum has faced controversy because it was conceived and constructed under the Bachelet presidency and therefore criticized as representing the views of the State. Originally, The Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) was not invited to participate in the design of the museum. When “the State” speaks for victims, memorialization can become more about recreating a specific collective conscious than accurately honoring the memory of the oppressed.
Jewish Museum (Berlin, Germany)
Another Museum of Memory that utilizes modern design and architecture is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The museum opened in 2001 to remember the Jews of Germany and document the atrocities of the Holocaust. The winning design for the building was awarded to Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. From the outside, the building has a cold, oppressive, grey look that evokes the image of barbed wire. Visitors entering the museum first descend a stairwell to the Entry Void. There are then three circuitous axial routes that one can take: the first leads to the Holocaust Tower, the second ends up outside the building in the Garden of Exile and Emigration, and the third goes to the Stair of Continuity ending upstairs in the museum’s exhibition spaces. The architecture of the museum itself propels the narrative forward. The museum is also directly next to the Prussian Court of Justice, which serves as an entrance to the museum. This dichotomy of history and modernity reflects the complexities of the politics of memory.
ESMA Memory Site Museum (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the ESMA Memory Site Museum is housed in the former Navy School of Mechanics building, which was the largest of the clandestine centers of detention, torture, and examination during Argentina’s military regime. The museum opened in 2015 and serves as physical evidence of the human rights abuses committed at the site. Originally, former President Menem attempted to have the site demolished in order to build a monument. However, Lois and Laura Bonaparte opposed this plan in court and it was decided the site would remain as a space of memory. Along with narrative and factual information, one complex of buildings from the original site has been maintained for visitors to tour. In this way, the space itself can give testament to the violent actions that took place.
Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre (Kigali, Rwanda)
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre was created in 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The museum is meant to be a place of grievance and an educational space for Rwanda’s younger generation. The museum exhibits consist of documentation of the genocide, historical context, and connections between the genocide and other international tragedies. This museum highlights another problem that often comes with memorializing conflict, which is funding. Many international sponsors aided in the construction of the museum including the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, the Government of Sweden, the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands, the Embassy of Belgium and the UK’s Department for International Development. This international influence can remove the ownership of the memorial and the memory itself from the actual community. Issues also arose with this memorial because survivors felt the historical narrative was unnecessary to their own memory of the genocide and they feared symbolic gestures would replace real political action.