AAM 2012 – Minneapolis, Day 2, Monday (Exhibiting Human Tragedy)

A session highlight from today’s AAM was “In Memoriam: Interpreting Human Tragedy”. Panelists were from institutions including Holocaust remembrance museums, 9/11 memorials, and academics involved with conveying the histories and stories association with tragic events. The common thread through all these presenters were that they are all telling the histories through the eyes of the victim – which is the more likely vantage point that these events are commemorated in museums and memorials. (Indeed, many war memorials are often commemorating victories, albeit with those whose lives were sacrificed as a central focus.)

Studio Tectonic is finalizing the exhibition “Chief Niwot – Legend & Legacy” at the Boulder History Museum, in Boulder, Colorado. It is also wrestling with human tragedy. In this case, the relationships between the native Arapaho people and the western settlers of the Colorado Territory in the 1860s. A centerpiece of the story is the death of many Arapaho and Cheyenne at the Sand Creek Massacre. In short, a surprise attack on on mostly native women and children who believed themselves to be safely encamped under the auspices of the US military.

This story is in effect a telling of history largely through the records and materials left by the perpetrator, not the victim. Arapaho voices are heard through the exhibit, yet nearly all record of their voices are secondary sources in regards to the actual massacre events. It’s also particularly challenging to strive for museum balance and accuracy when the records of those want to convey have been obliterated or not documented in ways that exhibition developers are accustom to working with. By this I mean oral and story-based histories or accounts of victims where little remains of the survivor’s experiences.

The exhibition’s curatorial, design and development team addresses these challenges through a variety of approaches, and I’ll hold on the lessons learned and techniques used in crafting this particular exhibition until after it’s open. But from the session today, I found a particular point quite fascinating and relevant that I believe may be instructive in future exhibit projects that looks to achieve the right balance in complex stories of conflict…

150 years of time and reflection help to place perspective on the Chief Niwot story – effectively separating today’s non-native Coloradoans from our ancestor’s past. This has the unfortunate effect of allowing viewers to avoid accepting the humanity of both sides of tragic event. An important point of the session was presented by Dr. Danny Cohen, a holocaust researcher, who made note that many institutions often present the enemy as non-human…as monsters. And they do this in ways that may not even be perceived by themselves or their audiences. His example was the portrayal of Nazis only in uniforms and not in their regular lives – at the beach, dining with family, at their weddings. By removing the humanity of the oppressor we effectively separate ourselves from the possibility that vastly all of us carry the potential of both the victim and perpetrator of human tragedy.

Again, Dr. Cohen provided a salient view of the purpose in telling of human tragedy in the museum:

  • to memorialize the loss of people
  • to provide record of the events through facts, research and personal experiences
  • to incite change and action in the viewer as to our human capacity to harm

Sadly, we know that the need to memorialize, educate and exhibit about human loss will not abate. For this reason, if none other, we need to continue to grapple with the ways in which we share the stories.

I’ll try and grab a bibliography from the session and post it here too.