Week 12: War, Peace, Commemoration & Readdress

Well, it has been a crazy (and busy) few weeks. It’s hard to believe the semester is almost over. The term has flown by, and due dates are fast approaching! 

I am returning to my blog to talk about the readings for tomorrow’s Public History class. The majority of the readings look at issues related to commemoration and remembrance, but others look at nationalism and the controversy surrounding displaying the dead in museums. For this post, I will describe and discuss some of the readings I found interesting. 

Overall, I found Samuel Alberti et al.’s “Should We Display the Dead?” very thought-provoking as I had not thought about the ethical issues on displaying human remains in public places. The article repeatedly refers to the BodyWorlds exhibit, which I saw at the Ontario Science Centre in 2009. My memory of the exhibit is fuzzy, but I did not know that they were real bodies. While that may sound crazy, according to the authors, many people who visit the exhibition do not realize they are looking at actual remains.[1] Still, even without realizing they were real, I remember being drawn in by the poses of the bodies, which as the authors point out, is one of the main arguments for displaying the dead in a museum as “When small children and younger adults actually experience captivating displays, their interests piqued, their intellect stirred, perhaps a life-long exploration begins.”[2] After reading this article, I think I fall into the ‘sometimes’ camp. I see no significant issue with displaying remains as long as they are ethically obtained and presented. However, I think museums should always consider other means of delivering their message. For example, the display of shoes of Holocaust victims at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does an amazing job of illustrating the atrocities in a way that paragraphs never could.  

Blatt’s article discusses his experience attending Heidelberg’s quinquennial gathering of former Jewish citizens who escaped the city in the 1930s and 1940s. Blatt attended with his mother, whose experience with the Nazi regime has had a profound impact on her life. While she fled the city in 1938, her father was imprisoned and ultimately died of dysentery at Gurs internment camp. Moreover, her brother, Henry, died serving with the United States Army at the tail end of the war. The article does a great job of illustrating the complex relationship between memory and history for those returning to Heidelberg after over sixty years. As Blatt points out, those with direct lived experience of the Holocaust experienced the gathering in a much different light then he did “Where I felt excited and interested, my mother and the other former Jewish citizens felt nostalgia, pain and anger.” [3] Overall, it was great to see that Blatt and his mother found the gathering to be a great experience, especially as they both appeared to be hesitant towards attending. I agree with Blatt’s conclusion that it is critical for commemoration of the Holocaust to continue, even as those with direct connections pass away. As Blatt explains, these events ensure that memory of the injustices never fade away. 

 Davison’s article on New York’s 9/11 museum serves as poignant reminders that museums are not neutral spaces. Much like writing a monograph, museum staff present an interpretation of the past that is built from the evidence they analyzed. Moreover, as Davison points out in her editorial, “any museum is a result of choices made of what to display, and what to leave out.”[4]  From Davison’s commentary, it appears that the museum has an underlying political message by focusing on the roots of al-Qaeda and “telling the visitor what to think, rather than what to think about.” [5] However, at the same time, the memorial hall appears to do an excellent job of providing a voice to the almost 3,000 people who died in the attacks. Is it possible that by focusing on the firsthand accounts of people affected by the terror attacks, the museum could have presented a more neutral perspective? As Dean’s article points out, lived experiences can be just as problematic. 

Lastly, in “Museum’s as Conflict Zones,” Dean analyses the controversy surrounding a Second World War bombing exhibit at the Canadian War Museum. In brief, the museum caught flak (sorry for the pun!) from some but not all veterans for their interpretation of the Allied strategic bombing campaign. While the exhibit aimed to contextualize the debate over the morality and effectiveness of the bombing campaign in a balanced manner that presented both sides of the argument, critics panned the display for at best, making the campaign look ineffective and immoral and at worst presenting veterans as war criminals. Despite consulting four historians who claimed the exhibition was factual and balanced, the museum was forced to make changes following a Senate subcommittee demanded it do so. Overall, I found Dean’s analysis exploring why Veteran eyewitness accounts won out over scholarly evidence fascinating. According to him, the Veterans “lived experience gives them unassailable authority, at least in the eyes of the public”[6] No one can contradict the national narrative of heroism in the ‘good war’ without coming off as arrogant. While Dean argues that this case study may have long-reaching consequences in how museums approach controversial subjects, perhaps that only applies to events in recent historical memory. Arguments citing the Canadian soldier’s gallantry in the North-West Rebellion or South African War without mentioning the underlying theme of imperialism seem to have fallen out of vogue. Is time the ultimate healer, or have these events just been superseded by Vimy Ridge? 

  [1] Samuel Alberti, Piotr Bienkowski and Malcolm Chapman, “Should we display the dead?” Museum & Society 7 no. 3 (2009): 138.

[2] ibid., 135.

[3] Martin Blatt, “Holocaust Remembrance and Heidelberg,” The Public Historian 24 no. 4 (2002): 86.

[4] Janet Davison, “New York’s 9/11 museum: What should we think about the event now?” CBC News¸ https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/new-york-s-9-11-museum-what-should-we-think-about-the-event-now-1.2686161/. 

[5] ibid.

[6] David Dean, “Museums as conflict zones: The Canadian War Museum and Bomber Command,” Museum & Society 7 no. 1 (2009): 10. 

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