For societies that decide to memorialise victims of persecution (genocides, invasions, civil wars, military dictatorships, police states), notions like deterrence and aversion come quickly into play. But they are the poor cousins of ‘memory’, an almost mystical concept in these circumstances and crucial to any discussion as to why the world is caught up in a ‘global rush to commemorate atrocities’, as Paul Williams puts it in Memorial Museums (Berg, £19.99). There is no doubting the evidence. A non-exhaustive list at the beginning of the book includes 24 museums, sites or artefacts marking atrocities, disasters and ‘crimes against humanity’, of which only three existed before 1980: the Hiroshima museum, the old slave house on the island of Gorée in Senegal and the 1967 sculpture near Yerevan commemorating the Armenian genocide.
There were a handful of new entries during the 1980s, including the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes in Cambodia (on the site of the S-21 detention centre), the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum in China, commemorating Japanese atrocities in 1937, and the Musée Mémorial pour la Paix in Caen, within easy reach of the Normandy beaches for the thousands of visitors still fascinated by D-Day. From the 1990s onwards, museums and sites start to proliferate. Some, like the museum at Caen, are catch-all affairs designed to make the visitor think about war and peace, incivility and civility, and the grey areas between the two. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, known as the Museum of Tolerance, is typical of this approach, full of gizmos and interactive fun-tests for visitors, who can learn how bigoted they really are. Others, like the Chernobyl museum in Kiev, memorialise man-made disasters – and with rather more solemnity. The differences have a lot to do with funding and politics as well as taste.
The end of the Cold War marks the start of a brief ‘humanitarian’ period (1989-2001) and sets off a chain-reaction of atrocity commemoration – evoking both the victims and the perpetrators – that runs on into the post-humanitarian phase (the war on terror). In Latin America and South Africa, the casualties inflicted by the Cold War victors are celebrated in memorial parks for the disappeared, open torture chambers and prisons (including Robben Island). In Eastern Europe, the victims of the Cold War’s losers are remembered in exhibits of police files, interrogation cells, a Lithuanian ‘genocide’ museum, a House of Terror in Budapest framing Communist (and Fascist) abuses, and in Russia itself a Gulag museum, once the infamous Perm-36 labour camp. In several cases these displays are part of a landscape in which truth commissions and legal prosecution hold the foreground.
Some atrocity culture is for domestic consumption, especially in the former Soviet bloc, an aspect of the new nation-building. Elsewhere there is an ambition for something like a universal memory, which can transcend history and identity by fixing the meaning of events in perpetuity. That’s the sense of ‘never forget’, one of the ‘twin mantras’, Williams tells us, to be heard in all atrocity commemoration. The other is ‘never again’, an appeal to memory to take up arms and stand guard over the future.
But maybe we’re asking more of commemoration than it’s able to offer. Atroc-ity museums presuppose an active, moralising kind of memory, scalded into a state of permanent vigilance (‘never again’). Such high-alert modes may only be for groups and nations that reiterate one central truth at the expense of others. (The exercise of the imagination may look to them like denial or frivolity, as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others did to many former East Germans.) It’s distressing to think that for the rest of us atrocity museums run the risk of becoming themed spaces, parks of instruction, or grand guignol leisure destinations.
If only it was this anxiety that had inspired Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, minister for ‘children’ etc, to propose government funding for sixth-formers to visit Auschwitz. In fact it was a decision taken on the rebound, after last year’s folk tale that the Holocaust was about to drop out of the history syllabus had gone the rounds (we got the email). Apparently it was all about our willingness to capitulate to bad Muslims, who couldn’t stand to be taught about the fate of European Jews in the 1940s. In France, Sarkozy’s proposal that children in the last year of primary school should ‘adopt’ a murdered Jewish child – ten or eleven thousand were deported – as part of the curriculum has created a stir and been greeted with dismay by Simone Veil, president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, who was at the dinner where he announced the idea. Sarkozy is said to have been struck, as minister of the interior, by the persistence of anti-semitic attacks in France, so perhaps a ‘bad Muslim’ ingredient has been sneaked into this strange confection too. No one should underestimate the politics of commemoration or its availability as a second front.
That’s one of the many things that distinguish atrocity museums from more familiar museums – of science or natural history, say – where the assertion of values is more discreet. Another is the sheer power of calamity that bears in on the visitor. Evidence of atrocity is both repulsive and transfixing; often it resists genuine description; we are ‘speechless’ and undone, like villagers struck dumb after blundering onto sacred terrain – which is surely part of the intention. Maybe our interest in dark deeds will outlast our need to know about steam locomotion or the wingspan of the pterodactyl. We can be sure, at any rate, that the way we think about memorials changes. The atrocity museum is a bit like the quiet, well-tended cemetery, where inscriptions on tombs may seem apt, but may also seem sententious or vulgar to later generations. Meaning won’t survive just because a few well-chosen words have been set in stone.