An orchestra is an army. Chilly Gonzales

Victims "Just Like Us"

We live in an era that memorializes like none before and seek to create memorials that allow visitors to identify with victims of tragedy. But in portraying victims as just like us, are we paying enough heed to the political and cultural factors that led them to be victims to begin with?

In the wake of a violent political event it has become normative that discussion will very swiftly turn to a suitable memorial. Consider the July 2011 Norway terrorist attack: planning for the Utoya Memorial began shortly after the event; the memorial competition opened in June 2013; it is scheduled to open by the fourth anniversary this year. Much older events that went unmarked for decades are now also clamouring to receive the memorial treatment: a concerted effort is underway to establish an Armenian Genocide Museum in Washington, DC.

Or, consider this contrast: last year, New York’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened at a cost of US$700 million. It joins 700 other 9/11 memorials across the US (and others abroad). On September 16 1920, a few blocks away, a horse-drawn wagon filled with around 100 kilograms of window sash weights was detonated on Wall Street. The blast killed 39 and wounded 300. While shrapnel pockmarks from today are easily visible on nearby buildings, no memorial or plaque has ever been erected.

Today, this same act of terrorism would be physically memorialized with little equivocation. Was there some lack of collective psychological need among earlier generations? Or was there a sense among citizens and city officials that such acts of commemoration would be an improper subject for a memorial, or a pointless use of resources? What is it today that makes us want to create, underwrite, and live with permanent concrete markers of political violence? My answer ties together a few phenomena peculiar to our times.

Why Now?

First, where dying happens in public, we are now prepared to mark it in situ. Spontaneous memorials – the flowers, notes, and mementos – that appear within hours in places of death and suffering immediately establish the sacredness of the site in the public eye. Previously, removal to a private grave would have been deemed an appropriate place to mark a victim’s death. We now wish to designate the last place the person was alive, placing a permanent public spotlight on the politicized significance of his or her death.

Second, large-scale public art and architectural memorials represent the ultimate physical commitment towards “setting the historical record straight.” Observe the interventions in the last two decades in the urban fabric of Berlin, and the example of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in particular. Such physically striking installations increasingly play a key role in branding their city, even if this was not part of their original purpose. They feed and respond to the growth of non-traditional forms of tourism, which in turn makes them economically viable urban fixtures.

Third, our age has fixed its points on the moral and cultural compass when it comes to matters of memory: forgetting is bad; remembering is good. Civic renewal – the coming together, rebuilding, and refocusing on positive values – has emerged as a favoured response in the wake of a terrible event. The popularization of therapy culture (and its attendant discourses of “working through” loss and “achieving closure”) has helped us to accept the process of building and attending memorials as an apposite response, when transferred to a society-wide level, to feelings of sadness and loss.

Also commonplace is the idea that such remembrance has a political purpose in inculcating vigilance. Often-cited truisms remind us that forgetting allows us to repeat historical atrocities while remembering helps to prevent them. We hear often that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We are reminded of Hitler’s Obersalzberg Speech (“who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”). We are familiar with the “Never Again” pledge associated with the Holocaust, which has been extended to other atrocities. Civic participation in remembering is promoted as a public good, an imagined way of keeping atrocities at bay.

Fourth, memorials and their attendant museums have become highly effective at activating visitors’ senses, thoughts, and consciences. They are filled with evocative objects, emotive photography and video, wrenching first-hand accounts, and touching testimony. Sensuous, haptic design experiences produce seductive visitor experiences. They call on expressive universal meta-themes – love, family, loss and trauma – with which people from all walks of life can identify.

At What Risk?

By emphasizing the common historical experiences of everyday people in tragic histories, memorials and museums leverage the idea of transference (the “it could have been me” idea). Yet, when reflecting on victims’ lives, it is often difficult to imagine those who have lived such an incommensurable order of human experience. In thinking about the lives of others in relation to our own human horizon, we may subconsciously make ourselves – rather than the historical victim presented – the implicit standard against which “likeness” is measured, and the focus of attention.

The question for memorials and museums is whether it is necessary to consider limitations on strategies of identification so as not to encourage bogus similarities between victims and the audiences who view them. In stressing that victims are “just like us,” an emphasis on likeness disguises the political and cultural situations by which people came to be victims. The risk is that we produce visitors who, tolerant, aware, and doing no harm, visit more and more memorials around the world, expressing sadness but seldom asking why they continue to proliferate.

Read more in this debate: Brigitte Sion, Witold Rybczynski, Steve Brown.

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