Gradhiva n°5

spring 2007: Seismography of terrors. Traumatism, museography and extreme violence

File edited and presented by Jackie Assayag

During and after the Second World War, it seemed as if Europe and the Western world refused to take in the horrors of the genocides that had been committed. Was it impossible to look reality in the face? Impossible to imagine the unimaginable? Impossible to accept blame, as some people have suggested? Or yet more impossible to believe something beyond the bounds of humanity?

Gradually, however, from the 1950s onwards, things changed, despite the fact that « murderers of memory » and other « negationists » were hard at work to promote their own version of events. Alongside the growing awareness of the Holocaust and of the traumatic nature of the extreme violence and extermination involved, other conflicts and wars were requalified as « genocides » (including events occurring in the pre-modern era and in Antiquity). A kind of « competition of victims » developed among groups – ethnicities, « races », « communities », peoples, religions and nations – to obtain the gold medal for suffering. Some took perverse pleasure in all this, while others loudly denounced the so-called « genocide industry ».

A resolution gradually took shape – « Never again! » Not only should no one ever forget, but given the dark side of our modernity, it has become absolutely essential to remember, by commemoration or by celebration. Those who speak of the « duty of memory » frequently advocate ad hoc « memorials », either at the scene of the crime or raised within museum walls. Gathering places suited to solitary or collective commemoration must therefore be set aside and buildings raised to the religious, civil, or even aesthetic glory of a name or an image, a representation or a material structure, whether erected in haste or carefully architectured, discreet or ostentatious, abstract or figurative, filled with noise or with silence, meditative or pedagogical etc. We may then claim to have given living form to the Event, and to have rendered its violence and abjection intelligible, along with the traumatic consequences suffered by its survivors. A way of giving form to the unimaginable, of forcing disaster to take shape in our minds and also a way of rendering justice to the victim and denouncing the executioner. The undertaking is, in its own eyes, both healing and therapeutic, serving also as a message of vigilance.

Would the museal response resemble a « fire alarm », to use Walter Benjamin’s striking analogy? Everyone, young and old alike, would thus become a witness – after the fact – in his own right, thanks to such seismographs of mass terror designed, constructed and prominently featured today in museums in most parts of the world.



Jackie Assayag, The spectre of genocide. Trauma, museography and extreme violence

The refusal to face the horror of genocide has been supplanted by the notion of embracing and using horror to educate others. In the meantime, it has become a sort of language or media object. While the duty to remember prevails, the question remains of what to do with these horrendous events to ensure they never happen again. There is no clear or set answer to this question, however. The important thing is to sound a warning alarm, a task taken up by survivors and their descendants, activists and protesters, calling for memorials at various sites of “slaughtered memories”: crime sites, museums, camps, etc. Such testaments prove that genocides do not go unrepresented; that their singularity does not preclude comparison; that they must not be defined solely and strictly within the framework of the law; that “Judaicide” is not a form of theology, nor is it the paradigm of extreme violence; and, lastly, that the trauma inflicted must be talked about, interpreted and judged in mixed forums. Despite the growing tendency towards compassionate memorials, which is becoming a globalised phenomenon, we must still work to ensure that the complex stories and knowledge arising from genocides and other mass crimes continue uninterrupted.

Sophie Wahnich, Communicating fear, and thinking terror. The museums of a war-torn Europe

This article takes a look at museums devoted to the history of war and terror in an expanding Europe, and calls their real mission into question. Careful analysis of a number of museum systems casts doubt upon their ability to present a complex history made up of collective and individual decisions, contradictory stances and discontinuities, favouring instead the memories of a majority seeking general agreement. Minority or dissident experiences, or those that have come to be seen as shameful to the nation concerned, are usually externalised or masked. Each minority memory group should have its own museum, with a discontinuity of places increasing the discontinuity of experiences.

Although museums know how to communicate the sense of fear, they no longer question the notion of terror as a political category. Fear is always produced by a negative fury and no conflict of value seems to explain the violence of each fear. Far from working on the residual traces of shame, such museums accommodate the past in the form of a generalised pity and long drawn out lamentation.

Catherine Coquio, ‘Send the ghosts to the museum?’ The concentration camp visit as seen through the eyes of two surviving writers – Ruth Klüger and Imre Kertész.

The text poses the question of the anthropological function of the museum culture of concentration camps and historical catastrophes – the Shoah, Hiroshima, Kigali, etc. – through survivors’ viewpoints on ‘concentration camp kitsch’. It presents the literary form of the critique as illustrated by two Nazi camp witnesses. Their work, long in the making, is both a creative and iconoclastic addition to holocaust culture. This is made clear when the authors reflect on and theatrically describe visits to the camps (see Ruth Klüger, "Refus de témoigner", 1992 and Imre Kertész's allegorical parable "Le Chercheur de traces", 1977 then 1998 - i.e. before and after the fall of the Wall). The first interprets museum concentration camp culture as ‘superstition’ attached to the place of the dead – ghosts that, on the contrary, should be reawakened by determined invocation. The second calls into question the proximity of the museum-town and the museum-camp – Weimar and Buchenwald – by portraying the camp visit as an Apocalypse of the False. Both authors assume the roles of ‘sorcerer’ and ‘messenger’, constructing the image of the witness through a process of literary distancing, whose purpose must also be understood. Both writers draw a line between art and kitsch and, by so doing, between human and inhuman as they are viewed in cultural forms of memory – art continues to mythicise itself, whilst decaying under the effects of tourist and ideological denial.

Didier Fassin, ‘What really happened’ The Apartheid Museum experiment – The Apartheid Museum, opened in 2001 and situated at the entrance to Soweto, endeavours to bring to life a part of South Africa’s history that had until then been the subject of systematic museal reconstruction. Designed to combat not so much forgetfulness or denial, but rather a kind of ‘derealisation’ of a not so distant past, it insists upon didactic realism and brings together an educational project - which  explains what the ideology and practice of racial segregation amounted to and how the regime was resisted - and a performative project, which recreates the period and the places in order to give tangible shape to oppression and liberation. Rather than attempting an impossible objectivity, the museum offers visitors a litmus test through which the nation’s redemption becomes a possibility.

Célestin Kanimba Misago, Keeping alive the memory. Genocide and trauma in Rwanda – In Rwanda, the memory of genocide is kept alive largely for educational purposes – it looks back on the past in order to correct the present and ensure a better future. The instruments put in place by the Rwandan government to ensure the continuity of memory seek to encourage the population not only to combat the ideology of genocide, but also to understand the need for reconciliation and construction of a unified society. By their very nature and their message, the commemorations, weeks of mourning and memorial sites form a permanent reminder for successive generations of what must never be allowed to happen again. These same instruments, however, could well nurture seeds of division, give rise to ambivalent feelings and provoke diametrically opposed reactions. Analysis of the ways these instruments work shows the ambivalence of their role and raises the question of a traumatising museography.

Reesa Greenberg, Museal representation of genocides. Healing or reactivated trauma ? – A comparison of how trauma has been represented in museums of Jewish religion and cultures since the Second World War and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, 2004. It highlights the possibilities and limits of museums which focus on the history of genocides in countries where victims and their descendants continue to live alongside perpetrators and their heirs. The power and the desire to represent oneself on the museal platform are examined, followed by a discussion of concepts associated with trauma [self-healing, zakhor (remembering), tikkun olan (repairing the world), temporal orientation, survival, and resilience] in the context of their museological representations.

Jean-Louis Margolin, Scrambled history. Museums and memorials of Cambodian genocide

The memory of the genocide committed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge is a crucial issue for Cambodia. Two contradictory trends have been at work – embarrassment and relegation to past history on the part of Cambodians themselves and growing interest on the part of the Western world. Because of pressure from the latter (including that exerted by tourists), places bearing witness to the catastrophe – Tuol Sleng prison is a case in point – have often been restored and developed. The horror of the crimes committed there cannot fail to affect visitors and they are essential to historians’ investigations. There is, however, danger of a dual misrepresentation – spectacularising the horror and rejection of it as a half abstract, half individual monstrosity. The result can only be dissimulation of chains of responsibility and of the consequences of ideological fanaticism. Action taken by local communities in Cambodi, and memorial work on the part of diaspora refugee, might help to correct the situation.

Elisabeth Gessat-Anstett, Speaking out against the outrage. A museum of the Soviet labour camp

At its Moscow site, the Memorial Organisation houses a GULag museum that is, in fact, not a history museum at all, but rather a museum of arts and craftsmanship. Expanding on ideas developed by philosopher Christine Buci-Glucksmann, based on Jacques Lacan’s work on the concept of « the beautiful », this article sheds light on the responsibility of preserving the memory of the Soviet labour camp institution. It does this by showing how, in post-Soviet Russia, the arts offer one of the only possible media for creating a museographic record of the GULag.

Tzvetan Todorov, Germaine Tillion facing the extreme

Germaine Tillion is not just an anthropologist who lived through a concentration camp; she tended to adopt an anthropologist's point of view even when confined at the camp and would later draw on her experience as a deportee in her professional research. In Ravensbrück, she strived to understand the concentration camp system, which she then explained to the other detainees in the form of lectures or of a « musical review ». As a Historian and Anthropologist, she endeavours to find the right balance between objective data and her subjective experiences, always treading the line between identifying with her subject and maintaining her distance.


Chloé Maurel