Friday, 7 December 2012

War, memory and museums

Of all the lectures so far this one interested me the most even though some of the ideas Dr Gabriel Koureas presented I want to argue with. I remember being deeply affected by a visit to the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust galleries, as well as visiting the Wiener Archives earlier in the year, so I read the entire suggested lecture journal/book list with fascinated interest.

'Traumatic recall is full of fleeting images the percussion of blows, sounds and movement of the body' wrote Roberta Coulson in 1995. Ordinary memories are something we can recall or narrate however this is not the case with traumatic memories. There is a break in the narrative. Someone who experiences war finds it hard to construct a narrative for that event. They experience embodied flashbacks/memories.

The Jewish Museum, Berlin

And so to Berlin. As a case study we were asked to read about the 'star architect of our time', Daniel Libeskind and The Jewish Museum. He interestingly wrote in 2000, 'it is like other museums, with white walls where pictures can be hung and objects exhibited'. On reading the history of the design and seeing pictures of the museum, this statement is patently not true. It is not full of objects nor hung with paintings. It is a very different kind of museum. A narrative history can be found in various places on the web.

He called the project 'Between the Lines' because for him it was 'the nexus of lines connecting invisibles that are not patterned on the cityscape' or 'a project about two lines of thinking, organisation and relationship' (2001) It is 'an irrational and invisible matrix' and from the outside you get no clue about what you'll find inside. Obscure windows within lines/narrow slits show lines, the lack of entrance reflects absent communities. Libeskind continues, 'a void is not really a museum space. the voids refer to that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin's history: humanity reduced to ashes.'

The entrance is through the old main building and you have a choice of three separate paths/journeys;

- axis of holocaust; a subterranean corridor leading to voids. Dark, devoid of any artificial light, heating, and disorientating
- axis of exile; leads to a garden with 49 columns to once again completely disorientate the visitor. It 'represents a shipwreck of history'
- axis of continuity; the permanent exhibition

Why does the architect want to impose disorientation on the visitor; what is the design trying to achieve?

-to disturb and destabilise our senses and our reaction to the space. physically feel cold and you can't see, sounds are multiplied. all senses are under attack.

This feeling relates to the Coulson quote. This building is designed to make the visitor feel what it is like to have these traumatic memories, what it means to have this recall. The lines intersect to create dead ends, with no circular narrative within;  the interrupted narratives reflect the fractured collective memory.

Theodor Adorno, leading proponent of the Frankfurt school, active in 1930s wrote about the rise of Nazism and the Jewish community. For Adorno, who survived the war there couldn't be representation after the Holocaust. How can you represent the unrepresentable? For many reason abstraction became very important after WW2 but this is one of them.

We never experienced the Holocaust; these spaces are designed for us, second and third generations. What is the difference between us and them? They have the flashbacks, we do not. Our memory is secondary traumatic memory; it becomes a prosthetic memory like an added limb or prosthesis. What are the implications of this? The lecturer recommended reading Marianne Hirsh.

Memorial of Murdered Jews

Staying in Berlin, we turned to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews. The winning designer said, 'the enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that an attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate...our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia. we can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present' (Peter Eisenmann 1998). How is this achieved in terms of the design of the garden?

As an aside this memorial took a while to come into its current form. Discussions began in the late 80s with various competitions, debate, no decisions, and a general inability to come to a conclusion. He suggested that is this how German society felt about the memorial and how they coped with the past and it took a while to come to terms with history and it was difficult to make a decision. As other people were murdered, there was a consideration of who to remember and how; the political debates also reveal complexities.

They achieve disorientation in relation to the visitor because it is almost impossible to get out. There is nothing to tell you what the memorial is about, you need to go end of the memorial where there is a subterranean information centre. However it has almost become a playground; hide and seeking children, photographers climbing on concrete. It has taken on a separate life from what was intended. The architect thought of it as a place of contemplation but it seems to be a playful space as well. Interesting. It is an abstract memorial, echoing Adorno's idea of abstraction being the only way to convey the unrepresentable.

There were 400 entries to the memorial competition. Some of them were amazing. One was to blow up the  Brandenburg Gate and put rubble in the allotted space; or convert tarmac to cobblestones on part of the autobahn approaching Berlin so that drivers would slow up and think about the Holocaust; have a bus stop at this site and have buses taking visitors to the concentration camps, non stop. These are all counter monuments, challenging the permanent stone/concrete memorials.

Imperial War Museum, London

Marianne Hirsch et al concentrate on prosthetic memory and how it is represented in Jewish museums, confronting spatial intimacy between the visitor and the Holocaust to create empathy. Empathy is better than sympathy in this case. Not self pity... we are separate from the suffering subject but at the same time we can feel something for what happened to them. Through dialogue and active understanding we can engage meaningfully with these museums and difficult art objects, eg., objects from war, steel remains of twin towers.

Does the IWM produce this kind of dialogue between the art object, visitor and other exhibitions?

In 1917 the IWM was instigated and had its first exhibition in Crystal palace in 1920. The opening speeches and the catalogue describe the story of the inspired discovery of rifles/machinery. The humans within war weren't mentioned, why not?  The lecture suggests that whilst they were unreliable, the machines of war weren't. Images depicting cases of shell shock show its debilitating effect. Men were also demanding in terms of jobs, money, and when they returned to the 'land fit for heroes', life was difficult - Churchill spoke of the fear of Bolshevism. Where men couldn't be trusted, guns can be.

It was clear that in the choice of  material on show, the machines 'honourable history' was, and still is most important. Churchill said that 'those sober relics of war would be looked upon not merely with wonder and astonishment'  but they are 'sacred objects', showing the 'sacrifice of a splendid generation'. I must find that Times article! The king also said of the machinery that they were, 'a happy inspiration'.

In situ at the IWM
Which leads me to the placing of Jeremy Deller's installation 'Baghdad, 5 March 2007' at the IWM. Information and background can be found online but basically after a tour of the US it was placed with the destructive implements of war. They hoped that it would be a thought provoking addition and encourage visitors to see exhibits in a new light; the exhibit will serve as a reminder of the impact on civilians. It was meant to be a conversation piece; not just among academics and critics but with the general public.

However it seemed that the death and injury wasn't centre stage. The Guardian review spoke about the 'information this car brings, the terrible moment of reality. A piece of evidence; something solid and actual.' The lecturer here suggested that the comments and dialogue around the piece were more interested in the artistic merit rather than the death of the people in the car or the atrocities of war so it failed as a 'conversational piece'. I'm not so sure.

Unlike the shiny clean machines around it, the car was rusty and broken, a clear result of the explosive power around it can achieve. The lecture went on to say that in the space of metonymic substitution, it deflects possibility and the objects around are so far removed from the car that they fail to engage in a meaningful way. Therefore it fails to engage the visitor.  I would say cause and effect is pretty clear..what does he want? The fact it was a suicide bomber is also a problem - a phantom which haunts both the car and the 9/11 relics. The faceless, nameless bomber becomes a non-entity. Perhaps the issue is the new kind of warfare? (I agreed with this, I'm not always argumentative)

There was a project suggested in 1917 as a memorial to the fallen. They advertised for photos of people who had died in WW1. The response was enormous. However the officials didn't anticipate the dialogue that the photos initiated. People wrote letters to complain abut the situation in Britain at the time. As a result the idea was shelved because it didn't fit with the IWM ethos so the 150,00 photos are in the archives. No one wants to engage them, in particular the museum. Why? They say they are not on display because there is no space. The lecture questioned whether it was 'the dialogue' required.

A modern photographic project 'War Story' was a compilation of Afghanistan photos, stories and artifacts. However the lecturer focused on the carefully composed, uniform images and contrasted them with the 1917 photos with their rich variety of uniforms and poses. The modern soldiers have the air of efficient machines, no PTSD here. The IWM says that their gaze invites wonder of what they are thinking/have been through. But they do not invite dialogue says the lecturer. Again, he might be right to a certain extent.

So to conclude, prosthetic memory and empathy only works if we can enter the dialogue and have other voices included. For example, like the enemy who is absent, the political back story, the real thoughts of the families, partners of the people involved.

Incidentally £50million has been put aside for the centenary celebrations of WW1, so we can commemorate and capture 'the national spirit'. A memory of war used for political reasons and excluding dialogue, consequences and understanding. £5m  has also been set aside for IWM refurbishing and exhibitions.

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