Exhibiting Atrocities in the Era of Claims for Moral Universals
The ‘universalization of the Holocaust’ has established the Shoah as a historical reference point legitimizing a global moral imperative to respect human rights. Much has been written about the ostensible ‘globalization of memory’, but as yet no genuinely global comparative study systematically confronting this hypothesis with the actual representations of atrocities exists. We examine memorial museums on four continents, arguing that what is called ‘globalization’ in fact comprises three to some degree contradictory trends:
1) The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem are role models for a universal moral orientation that focuses on the individual victim and generates aesthetic ‘standards’ for musealization.
2) The German concept of negative memory, self-critically confronting the crimes committed by her own population, has inspired museums to tackle the question of one’s own complicity in order to challenge collective self-victimization and the externalization of responsibility.
3) The genocides of the 1990s led to a ‘forensic turn’: the investigation of bones & other material evidence of atrocities has changed the way in situ memorial museums deal with material traces of violence. This shift has also impacted ‘old’ memorial sites like Sobibor, which has become a site of archaeological research after 70 years.
GMM examines 50 memorial museums dealing with
a) the WWII period in the US, Israel, Europe, China, and Japan;
b) recent genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
We look at museums as situated, performative spaces of memory and knowledge production entangled in global dynamics of translation and exchange. The project pays attention to multidirectional circulation of tropes, images, icons, and practices between memorial museums worldwide: from modes of narration, staging and display, to transmission of scholarly and forensic expertise.
Scholars claim that ‘globalized’ memorial museums reflect new moral standards and a new language of commemoration, but what is the price of the attendant decontextualization in the name of moral universals? This first global typology of memorial museums challenges the concept of ‘universal memory’ and the notion that memorial museums constitute a globalized space of communication and negotiation.