The National Catholic Review

The Gulag Museum in Russia, the Slave House (Maison des Esclaves) in Senegal, the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic: what could these places have in common? They all are what have come to be known as sites of conscience. And each represents issues involving human rights; hence the use of the word conscience. In 1999, representatives of these and other sites came together to form the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience. The nine founding members gathered at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy. Now numbering over a dozen and growing, the coalition’s sites serve as catalysts for dialogue on a variety of human rights issues, both past and present.

 

By their very names, these places point to backgrounds of human rights abuses and suffering. The Gulag Museum, for instance, was a former Stalinist labor camp. Similarly, Senegal’s Slave House was a slave transport station in the 18th century. In its damp basement cells, men and women were penned together as they waited to be shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas during the slave-trading years. Also in Africa is the District Six Museum. It commemorates the South African racist government’s forced displacement of 60,000 people of color from their century-old neighborhood during the period of apartheid. The area was razed in the mid-1960’s in order to create a whites-only housing development.

The director of the coalition is Liz Sevcenko. I visited her at the offices of the Coalition Secretariat, located at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which founded the coalition. The Tenement Museum itself is a Site of Conscience. Its reconstructed rooms recall the often desperate struggles of new immigrants arriving in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They faced exploitation and discrimination as they embarked on their new lives, crowded into tiny apartments, many of which lacked running water and heat. Initially, immigrants worked at home doing low-paid piece work for long hours each day, similar to work done in sweatshops that presently exist in other New York City neighborhoods.

The concept of museums as sites of conscience is relatively new. When the Tenement Museum first explored the idea in the 1990’s, Ms. Sevcenko told me, museum people argued that such a concept did not reflect the proper activity of a museum. Similarly, she noted, the activist community was also cool to the idea, with many claiming that museums are by their nature “static and elitist, places where nothing happens.” But, she went on to observe, “the connection between past and present, and history and activism, was so natural for us that we felt there must be others in the world who had the same vision.” And indeed there were—namely, the nine founding members from various nations who gathered at Bellagio in Italy for their first meeting in 1999. Of that meeting Ms. Sevcenko said: “We shared our experiences about the work we were doing, and realized that we were redefining the role and form of a museum,” and at the same time creating a new kind of institution and a new tool for building a culture of human rights through dialogue.

Engaging Memories

One of the most powerfully moving sites of conscience, still in the making, is the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some of the buildings on its campus were torture centers during the military dictatorships of the 1970’s and 1980’s. More than 5,000 people were questioned and tortured, but only 150 survived. A number of those killed were first heavily sedated and then dropped from airplanes into the ocean. Now, a group of human rights organizations in Argentina has assembled an archive of photographs and documents from the school and from other local sites associated with the abuses of that time. The group, a founding member of the coalition, is known as Open Memory (Memoria Abierta). Plans are underway to install the archival documents and photographs in the main building of the former Navy Mechanics School itself as a museum of memory. Argentina’s president, Nestor Kirchner, has already approved use of the site for a museum, although not without strong objections from the military. In an essay called “The Power of Place: How Historic Sites Can Engage Citizens in Human Rights Issues,” Ms. Sevcenko observes that the museum, because of its past uses for torture activities, will implicitly pose questions to visitors, such as: “What are the steps a society takes to make horror seem normal, and does it involve me? How am I responsible or implicated?” Presenting such questions is an important function of sites of conscience.

Victors and Captors Meet

During our conversation, Ms. Sevcenko cautioned that calling museum projects of this type symbolic reparations might erroneously imply that the particular issues have already been resolved. But sites of conscience are meant to foster debates generation after generation, providing ongoing engagement among people who have experienced various kinds of conflict. A striking example of this type of ongoing engagement has taken place at the Gulag Museum in Russia. Former prisoners and former guards were invited back to give one another tours of the buildings and provide an opportunity to discuss their experiences with one another. As Ms. Sevcenko points out in her essay, the discussions among the former guards and former prisoners “forced these individuals to confront each other as human beings and allowed them to take significant steps in their personal recoveries.”

Not all governments, however, wish to have sites that memorialize human rights abuses, at least not until after the passage of many years. The Terazín Museum in the Czech Republic, for instance, recalls the Gestapo’s transformation of much of that small town into a Jewish ghetto during the Second World War. From Terazín more than 100,000 people were transported to the concentration camps, where most met their deaths. Although it is now a member of the coalition, the museum’s original promoters had to face a lengthy period after World War II “when they were barely able to use the word ‘Jew’ in the interpretation of what happened at the site,” Ms. Sevcenko said.

Another site that is not yet a coalition member but may eventually become one is the notorious Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia. Once a high school, the building was converted by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 into an interrogation and torture center. Victims’ pictures line the walls, and cabinets hold skulls and instruments of torture. Open to the public, the museum is run by the Cambodia Ministry of Culture, which has been working with the Coalition’s new Asian Sites of Conscience network.

Informing Conscience

One proposed site that would inevitably stir controversy is the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Writing in The Washington Post two years ago, the founding organizer of the coalition, Ruth Abram, had this to say about the matter: “Imagine if, instead of razing Abu Ghraib, Iraqis transformed it from an instrument of control and silence into an instrument of democracy and open discussion. Then,” she continued, “Iraqis of every age and stripe could gather at the former prison to contemplate...the mystery of what turns one person into a perpetrator, and another into a victim, or a quiet bystander or a resister.” Instead of destroying such places of abuse, she contends, turning them into museums could help to “inform a sense of conscience.” In light of the human rights violations that took place at the hands of military personnel there, however, one can imagine the resistance that would be mounted to a proposal like Ms. Abram’s. Nevertheless, it could serve as a starting point for valuable dialogue.

Memories of Liberations

Not all member sites of the coalition are reminders of suffering. Another coalition member—to the possible surprise of some—-is the U.S. National Park Service, which oversees the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and also the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Ga. These celebrate not only the painful struggles but also the triumphs of the women’s rights and civil rights movement in America. Sites of conscience can be sites of victory too.

In her “Power Place” essay, Ms. Sevcenko points out that people “instinctively turn to places of memory in order to come to terms with the past, and chart a course for the future.” These same sites, she concludes, can therefore serve as “critical tools for building a lasting culture of human rights.” Few would deny that a lasting culture of human rights is especially needed in today’s world, burdened as it is with abuses and human rights violations of many kinds and on every continent.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.