Past as Future:
The Burden of the Genocide Memorial
Designing a memorial or a museum to explain a genocide is no easy task. A genocide, by definition, is complex, contextualized, unfathomable, horrific in its scope. Such events resist placards, exhibit halls, memorial sculptures, public art pieces. The risk of oversimplification through memorialization has not prevented people from trying, however. Indeed, internationally there has been a wide precedent for genocide memorials, with varying approaches and varying degrees of success.
Figure 1: Exhibit overload at the US Holocaust Museum.
One of the most universally lauded is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, where visitors become complicit in the experience when they are assigned an actual ID card from one of the inhabitants of the Nazi concentration camps. After an exhaustive, three hour tour through the museum, wading through image after image, artifact after artifact, the visitor discovers if their person (and by extension they themselves) survived. Most, of course, do not. Beyond this somewhat gimmicky role play, the DC Holocaust museum works precisely because of its comprehensiveness—your normal defenses against such atrocities become worn down through the careful and persistent work of the curator’s hand, and by the time you reach the end of the museum, you are exhausted—intellectually, physically, and spiritually—and thus are much more open to contemplating that which cannot really be contemplated.
Figure 2: Lost in Berlin.
The Jewish Memorial in Berlin takes a different approach. This is not a museum of artifacts or photographs or video clips. This is an immersive sculpture installation that you approach, walk through, sit on. In the shadow of the Brandenburg gate and the US Embassy, four hundred metallic, rectangular columns of varying lengths sit in a large black-wide grid. As you wander into their midst, the ground begins to slope down, taking you with it. The world slips away, and you can see nothing but the sky above you. The columns swallow you up. In the middle of the sculpture, you realize the height of the columns were deceptive from a distance: in fact the ones in the center of the grid are taller than the others; they arise not from ground level, but from the bottom of a pit. All was not as it seemed. You meander through these long rows of columns, oblivious to the city, suddenly lost in a forrest of anonymous columns. And then, somewhere in the maze, you stumble across another wanderer, suddenly. There is a moment of great terror, until you realize he is just and lost as you are. The vast sculpture is deceptive in its simplicity, but it persists in your consciousness long after you leave, asking deep question about complicity, individualism, deception, guilt, ignorance—questions no exhibit hall can ask. Such a memorial is particularly interesting in the context of the modern German city, for Germans are still wrestling with how to articulate, explain, memorialize this part of their history. There is no real “Nazi” museum in Berlin yet. One is in the works, but you can feel the sensitivity of the issue at hand. Still: if you can build a museum, come to a sort of national consensus about going ahead with the project; if you can articulate a story, explain the madness, then maybe a kind of reconciliation has been a achieved.
This is particularly evident in Serbia and Bosnia, where the story of what happened during the 1990s is up for debate. If you go to Belgrade, you will find no museum or memorial about the war. Serbs disagree about the facts of the war—who was to blame, what happened, where the sense of responsibility lies. Most sites from the war are not labeled, are not talked about. We once stayed in notorious “rape hotel” because no one told us about the building’s history. Everything was covered up. It was only later that we found out, and this discovery of our ignorance was like waking up from a bad dream.
In Belgrade you will still see buildings half disintegrated from NATO bombings, but these can hardly be called a memorial—they lack the self-awareness and purposeful questioning of history that is present in a real memorial. In Sarajevo, you will find Sarajevo roses, mortar craters filled with red paint to mark the places where shells fell and killed civilians buying bread or shopping at a market. But they are easily missed. People walk over them, attending to their daily business. They remember what happened, but they do not want to dwell; they want to move on with their lives and one cannot blame them. As visitors to places where there has been great tragedy, we come hungry for easy sips of history; we simply want a site to visit so we can check off the box now: I’ve done that genocide. This may be true, but I think the state, condition, and presentation of a country’s public memorial tells a lot about the national psyche vis à vis their past.
Figure 3: A tourist contemplates skulls at the Killing Fields.
As in the Balkans, one can feel that Cambodia is still working through its stance on how to present the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime during the 1970s. When one visits Phnom Pehn, there are the requisite “Genocide Sites” of the Killing Fields, a pagoda filled with hundred of skulls and bones, and the Tuol Seng Torture Museum, a former high school that became a brutally efficient interrogation hall. Both are mind-numbing in their presentation of the brutalities, but also a little creepy in their presentation. I kept feeling like a voyeur who was staring at the bones of dead people and trying to feel an approximate horror. The Killing Fields pagoda in particular has become the universal symbol for memorializing atrocity in third world countries. The message becomes: show lots and lots of bones. I’m not sure how I would feel about this if one of those unidentified skulls on display was my son’s skull. But: it’s what the tourists want to see. They take their pictures, feel something, and then go back to their hotel.
If you travel outside of Phnom Pehn, however, particularly in the Northwest Provinces, where the Khmer Rouge remained in power until 1990, the story becomes much less neater, as citizens shared mixed feelings about the legacy of what happened. Many of these communities are still run by former Khmer Rouge commanders, who have since done many good things for the locals. You get a sense that just because there is tourist attraction full of bones in the capital this doesn’t define the terms of the story or the genocide for many local Cambodians. Visitors need a cohesive narrative, but locals have to continue to live with the actors on both sides of the Genocide. Maybe their neighbor killed hundreds of people but saved their father’s life. How do you condemn a man like this particularly when he is still your neighbor?
Yesterday we visited the Memorial Center in Kigale, Rwanda. Rwanda is an interesting case study because unlike the examples above, there was and is a conscious, official, government-sanctioned effort to form a cohesive narrative of the atrocities that occurred in 1994, almost to the detriment of any other narratives that run against the accepted story. This is not to say the country has made total peace with its past—despite great economic resurgence, despite the outlawing of the inflammatory terms “tutsi” and “hutu,” I got the sense that there is still unaddressed racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface. Unlike in the Balkans, however, who experience their trauma around the same time, the terms of the genocide are out in the open. I think Rwandans realized there was simply no way to go forward without such spiritual reconciliation and confrontation: too many people died in such a small country. There was no place to hide.
As part of this process of reconciliation, the country is littered with memorials to the genocide. The one we visited in Kigale was the largest in the country. I must say, as a memorial, the place is a mixed success. In some ways it feels remorseless to critique a site that is dedicated to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, but I will attempt to do so anyways, even if I risk sounding insensitive. The layout of the museum and memorial feels very local: the gardens that surround the main building are filled with indigenous, symbolic plants and take their design cues from Rwandan architecture and history. The “garden of unity” flows into the “garden of conflict” flows into the “garden of reconciliation.” Among other things, the gardens feature elephant statues, which symbolize memory and the act of never forgetting, and even a stature of a gorilla on a cell phone, which symbolizes the Rwandan’s duty to tell the world about what happened so it will not happen again.
Unlike many other memorials, there are actual re-intered mass graves at the site. These take on the form of giant concrete slabs which hide hundred and hundreds of coffins filled with bones. I’m not quite sure what form a mass grave should take on. The slabs lacked any sort of hint as to the number of people resting beneath. Next to the slabs there was a “wall of names” although there were only a few hundred names as compared to the apparent 250,000 people buried there, a disconnect that was almost more powerful than the slabs themselves. One wouldn’t want something as macabre as the Killing Fields’ tower of skulls. But the slabs felt oddly unaffected. If this was the point, then this point was not followed through fully. There was a lack of attention: they looked like the foundations of houses laid by a rather shoddy construction crew. The concrete was crumbling in places. Again, I was mad at myself for being so unfeeling and critical, but I also thought: there are people under there. There is a way to let us understand this, simply, with a gesture at our universal humanness, and that is not happening here. More attention needs to be paid.
The museum itself was a different story. The money for the site was provided by the Kigali City Council and the Aegis Foundation—a UK-based foundation whose main mission is to explain, document, and prevent genocides around the world. Their mission statement was evident in museum’s curatorial choices. I did briefly wonder if this was just another form of colonial exportation—the historiographic preoccupation with genocides across cultures—but my worries fell away when I saw the quality and care of the exhibits.
The ground floors went through Rwanda before, leading up to, during, and then after the genocide, with attempts to really unpack the causes of violence. There was a room full of pictures of those killed, there was a room full of bones in cases, and another that displayed clothes found on victims in the mass graves. As much I hated myself for falling under this “Killing Field”-like manipulation, I was moved by these exhibits. They work because they connect the individual detail—the Superman blanket worn by the child in his last moments—to the unfathomable cultural phenomenon of a country-wide genocide. As humans we hunger for a story that we connect to, and like it or not, manipulative or not, the specific artifact allows us to latch onto such a story.
Upstairs, there was an exhibit on the history of genocide in the 20th century. I had never before seen this in a museum. Again, the exhibits were clearly influenced by the ideology of Aegis, but such an ideology here felt comprehensive and worthwhile for display. I found myself completely absorbed moving from Armenia to Namibia to Treblinka. The exhibit drew connections across these vastly different genocides in subtle ways as to causes, commonalities, but mainly the exhibits was just a presentation of the fragility of society, of our tendency to categorize, separate, subjugate our neighbors and how quickly such thinking can lead to vast, organized violence. Maybe my visceral response and preference for this kind of survey was as much a commentary on my own values and partiality for historiography. Our responses to these memorials say as much about us as they do about the culture who has suffered through the genocide, but then this is always true.
The question persists: are these memorials important? Are they more than just a tourist attraction, a shorthand for empathy, a cursory take on events which cannot be summarized or presented very easily? I think they are. Dealing with the painful narratives of the past is a long and difficult process for any country, but ultimately a necessary process and the research, design, execution of a museum is one important public step along this road to reconciliation. Every April, Rwandans come to the Memorial site to mark the anniversary of the genocide. For them, the place is more than just a museum; it has become a place of memory and healing. The museum is now a part of their future as much as their past.