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Power, Politics, and Past Violence in the Memorial Museum

Ainslie Pierrynowski

During ASN’s discussion panel on Exhibiting Atrocity by Amy Sodaro, panelist Joyce Apsel said of the book, “When I first saw the table of contents, I thought, ‘how do these fit together?’” Yet, as she read Sodaro’s examination of several seemingly disparate case studies, from Hungary to Rwanda and beyond, Apsel found that Sodaro “pulled together key themes about what a memory museum is.” In fact, one of the highlights of this panel involved how Sodaro develops the concept of the memorial museum as a distinct, transnational phenomenon with recognizable tropes and aesthetics. The discussion revealed that the memorial museum tends to utilize nationalistic, divisive historical narratives of unity and redemption as it recounts past atrocities.

Even more intriguingly, Sodaro and the panel stated that memorial museums are inevitably shaped by structures of power. After all, the decision-making processes behind the creation of a memorial museum—from the choice of designer to the source of funding, on to the decision to create a museum in the first place—occur in a political context. As a result, memorial museums reflect the predominant historical narrative of their creators and of the nation-states where they reside. This pattern points to a shared purpose among memorial museums: legitimizing the political projects of those claiming to represent the nation-state.

This notion prompted a thought-provoking discussion about the rise of counter-museums. These largely grassroots museums aim to challenge official historical accounts. Panelist Johnathan Bach referenced a Japanese museum which departs from prevalent accounts of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombing to frame both the United States and Japan as imperialist actors, as well as museums in China which illuminate the stories of migrant workers. Even as these new forms of contestation emerge, however, memorial museums are themselves evolving. The victim-centered storytelling of memorial museums—and the politics surrounding their creation—make the choice of whose story to include in the museum a pertinent one. The digitalization of museums now affords visitors more immersive experiences, thereby making this aspect of memorial museums all the more salient. In addition, sites like the 9/11 Museum in New York, Sordaro said, represent an emergent category of memorial museums which commemorate terrorism and other forms of non-conventional violence.

These comments on the past, present, and future of memorial museums speak to the dynamic, contested nature of historical memory itself. In the words of panelist Alissa Boguslaw, Sodaro’s book “upends central debates in memory studies." Indeed, this panel offered an insightful look at how memorial museums shape and are shaped by a changing political landscape.

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