Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Memorial Museums

We are seeing lots of new museums being established and existing museums expand. One of the fastest growing niche areas of museums is that of memorial museums, described in a new book by Paul Williams, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (New York: Berg, 2007). Berg in this study concentrates on 24 of these museums, and much of his discussion considers matters related to archival documentation since one of the main differences of these museums is that they also function as research centers (although this research role tends to be not well understood and overshadowed by the more public exhibition functions).

In this new kind of museum we see a different view of war. Williams contrasts them with older war memorials: “While First and Second World War memorials communicated intangible values like honor, sacrifice, and spirit, the postwar period has seen an emerging expectation that ordinary and often conflicted attitudes towards a specific conflict might be materially represented” (pp. 4-5). As it is, these institutions have a difficult task in dealing with authenticity and evidence and creating some kind of useful and meaningful visitor experience. In considering the matter of whether to use real artifacts or replicas, Williams comments that “being faithful to documentary evidence and serving the historical imagination may pull in different directions” (p. 33).

These kinds of challenges may be confronting other kinds of institutions, such as archival repositories. One of the most interesting chapters in the book concerns the use of photographs in the memorial museums exhibitions, worrying that a “new explanatory context can overcome their original purpose. The issue is that, for victims, the camera was itself an instrument of humiliation and psychological torture. By displaying their pictures, there is a valid fear that museums might perpetuate this original intent, forcing those pictured to remain in submissive subjugation and recreating the disidentification that enabled the photographer’s act” (p. 57). It is a complicated process to view and understand the nature of photographic images created under such circumstances. Williams comments, “While we can gain information by establishing the context of any image, we do not necessarily understand the subject’s traumatic experience, since not only is it not the sum of what an outsider can adduce from the contextual signs in an image, but moreover, it denotes something that may not even have been fully experienced, in a contextual-historical sense, by the traumatized subject” (p. 75).

Williams raises many questions about this new form of museum. What kind of story, for example, should they seek to tell? While they serve as homes for debates about the past and certain horrific events, it is also the case that “memorials and museums are now being built with greater haste than in the past,” and certainly without knowledge of the full significance of the events they are seeking to interpret (p. 130). How do we manage this kind of moral education, utilizing events that are, in many ways, not finished? All of these questions and others can be extended out to these institutions’ archival functions and modern archives in general.