chapter  1
18 Pages

Selective Memory

Memorial museums, human rights, and the politics of victimhood
WithAmy Sodaro

One of the most perplexing problems for societies coming to terms with past violence is how to commemorate suffering in a way that will contribute to the prevention of future violence. This is especially true in memorial museums which aim to remember victims as well as to educate visitors, imparting knowledge and understanding about the causes and consequences of violence. They are intended to be “sites of persuasion” that seek to teach visitors the moral lessons of the past in order to embrace and promote human rights and democratic values. However, the emphasis in memorial museums on victims—and who is selected to be part of that group—often precludes meaningful engagement with the historical context and roots of conflict and human rights abuses. Using examples from memorial museums in Rwanda, Chile, and the US, this chapter contends that perpetrators are largely abstract or absent figures, arguing that memorial museums’ focus on victims at the expense of historical contextualization and knowledge is highly politically charged and ultimately challenges their ability to contribute to reconciliation and the prevention of future violence. For as long as perpetrators and their motivations remain in the shadows, memorial museums are not able to fully confront the past in a way that creates constructive historical dialogue and imparts its pedagogical and moral lessons. Instead, these museums function as sites of persuasion that convey the moral and political messages of the regimes that create them.