- Africa has a growing number of museums and memorials dedicated to past cruelties, including the Rwanda genocide, apartheid, the slave trade and the Holocaust. In South Africa, scientists discuss the importance of these memorials to transitional justice. Some hold they help foster "a culture of self-pity" while others say they help "celebrate the struggle against injustice."
At an ongoing international conference in Somerset (South Africa), more than 25 international scientists and other experts from over 15 countries are debating over the theme "transitional justice and human security." The issue of remember and forgetting – and how our memories are preserved and portrayed came under the spotlight in the session entitled "Memory, Museums and Memorials: Building a New Future" at the conference today.
Professor Heribert Adam from the Simon Fraser University in Canada said that most memorials and museums worldwide were dedicated to the victims of war or genocide, but that perhaps we should broaden our vision to include perpetrators as well. "All conflict, after all, is made up of victims, perpetrators of violence and bystanders and an inclusive picture might provide more for us - and future generations - to ponder on."
He asked how politically correct museums should be and said that in Britain, for instance, there were no museums dedicated to people who suffered at the hands of British colonialists. The Canadian scientist also questioned whether or not museums help foster "a culture of self-pity and victimology" and whether museums could help us learn lessons from the past.
A strong theme that was supported by all the speakers was that remembering the past helped us to imagine the future.
Valmont Layne from the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, said he believed that museums play an important role in transitional justice. To illustrate this, he sketched the area's history and outlined its significance in terms of South African culture and politics and elaborated on how apartheid displaced over four million people with its policy of forced removals.
Mr Layne described how Cape Town's District Six Museum was established in 1992 and how it helped break the mould of museums which, up till then in South Africa, had been "seen as formal and traditional institutions devoid of people's voices." Mr Layne also spoke about some of the challenges faced by the District Six Museum and mentioned that it was tasked with the seemingly paradoxical job of preservation and development.
With land restitution taking place in contemporary South Africa, he said the challenge of remembrance was also transferred to the returning community. "The next generation of home-owners will have to take the burden of history with them and need to understand that having land restored to them only to go on to sell it for ten times the amount to somebody not from the area would do little for the legacy of history they have inherited."
Marlene Silbert from the Holocaust Museum in Cape Town said she believed that remembrance is a "vital human activity" that influences our links with the past and helps us shape the future. "The exploration of the past allows us to reconsider our hopes, our fears and the society we want to create," she said.
Ms Silbert believes museums are powerful means of communication across language and time but that they should not only be places of fascination. "They should also become centres of social responsibility and dynamic institutions that are fully about the communities they represent and provide a context and understanding for the times we live in," she says.
With this in mind, the South African Holocaust Museum had a very strong educational outreach programme and offers unique learning experiences to, amongst others, school children, sports teams, lawyers, doctors, business people and professional organisations.
- Confronting the Holocaust allows people to look at their own racism and prejudice, Ms Silbert says, and it is through questioning that change is initiated. "Museums also play a vital role in fostering diversity. During our workshops we address how good people could have been involved in atrocities so that people start developing a sense of themselves and where their values lie."
Director Louis Bickford of Alliances & Capacity Development at the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) said he was animated about how the focus of memorials has shifted over the last few decades and - instead of glorifying war - they were now central in celebrating the struggle against injustice. Memorials, he believed, "serve to help us look inward at ourselves and outwards at our community."
Dr Bickford explained that, although he believed that there are best practices around the building of monuments, there was no "one size fits all" approach and that memorials should be drawn from the local vernacular.
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