Memorialization can be defined as falling into three categories dates of commemorations, site markers and archives. (Jelin 2007) I previously only considered site markers (whether literally on site or symbolically) as the tool of memorialization. I had never considered the amount of controversy that such markers understandably ignite. Of course this could be a tedious, contentious and laborious process. While this process and the questions around archives are arguably as important, for this brief reflective essay, I would like to discuss the pros, cons, and future possibilities for memorials as site markers based on these readings and my own experiences as tourist and researcher.
For this essay, by memorial sites, I will take Jelin’s definition “monuments, through naming streets and parks, through building memorials and museums, not necessarily on the physical sites. ” By the time I left Europe, I had very mixed feelings about memorials, but this past summer’s trip to Indonesia had me reconsider memorials in just places where silence prevails. In this essay I will look at the pros, cons, and possibilities for memorials.
At their core, memorials can stop a kind of silence. An old friend just described to me his journey into a small town in Lithuania looking for some memorial sites. The signs had not been maintained and he needed an old towns person to lead him through the brambles. Seeing the site had a profound impact on him. He had previously been rather immune to memorials and other commemorations of the past. I do not know his inner world, but he said a shift had happened and I saw that shift in his eyes. So there is something perhaps difficult to express in worlds that happens when we connect to this understand of human history (and present).
As we saw in Indonesia this summer when no memorials can be placed people feel unsettled and may even start their own. Tamen 65’s sign about not forgetting is a powerful reminder of what memorials cannot yet be constructed. But in this pro also lies the con. Indonesia does have memorials. The well by the Jakarta Communist Museum of Treachery is a memorial but is one that tells only a very specific story. We often speak of memorials as if they always speak the voice of the most worthy victim. The word memorial, however, is neutral. It can memorialize anything, even a celebration of conquering and destroying another group. Memorials are political. Jelin writes, “Memorializing the actual sites of horror and repression, monuments and memorials, museums, plaques and commemorative inscriptions in institutions, are the ways in which official and unofficial actors try to convey and materialize their memories.” But whose memories become materialized depends heavily upon who is in power at that moment.
Leaving Europe, however, my qualms regarding memorials were less political and more emotional and aesthetic. Europe felt over memorialized; I felt throughout Paris almost every street had some commemorative plaque, bullet hole or monument. Berlin was worse. While I greatly appreciated the acknowledgment of the loss that occurred under Nazi domination, I frankly felt “creeped out.” I had never felt more Jewish than when I saw those monuments. Growing up I had associated Judaism with success (academic and financial) and a strong sense of family. When I got to Europe, I began to think that being Jewish=death. The monuments were all somber. Or maybe as suggested by the ICJT document, I was simply coming to grips with “the unknowabilty of death.”
But just as I would not want to have a memorial to every “failed” romantic relationship in my bedroom, I’m not sure we want a memorial for every failed moment of humanity. I like the idea discussed by the International Center for Transitional Justice that memorials could be places of “personal mourning, spiritual solace, and private reflection, on the one hand, as well as civic engagement and democratic dialog on the other.” This brings me to my third point, the possibility offered by memorials. Annie Coombes argues “memories have to be meaningful to future generations as well as people who experience events remembered.” Here is where the possibility lies for future memorials. The goal is to create a better future. So perhaps these spaces out to be less somber and more places of reflection. Large bronze statues of starved Jews reaching for the sky do not inspire hope or new beginnings. The failed uprisings, the dead children all wreak of failure and hopelessness.
Can these “symbolic reparations” really acknowledge a devastating past and help us imagine new possibilities? I believe great artists and architects can help us combine these ideas. The Pope Paul II museum actually has a very powerful exhibition on peace. The constructed a long hallway by a glass wall facing outside. The word peace is projected on the floor in about 30-50 languages. As you walk over each word (it is cast from a light above) the word is pronounced in that language. You hear peace being said in almost every spoken language. It is haunting and memorable. Perhaps with technology and some artistry we can combine memorization with future imagine even if we cannot side step the politics.
Bickford, Louis, Patricia Karam, Hassan Mneimneh, and Patrick Pierce. “Documenting Truth.” International Center for Transitional Justice. Http://ictj. Org/publication/documenting-truth (Accessed August 2010) (2009). https://ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-DAG-Global-Documenting-Truth-2009-English.pdf.
Cole, E. A. “Transitional Justice and the Reform of History Education.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 1, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 115–137. doi:10.1093/ijtj/ijm003.
Hamber, Brandon, and Richard A. Wilson. “Symbolic Closure Through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies.” Journal of Human Rights 1, no. 1 (2002): 35–53. “ICTJ-DAG-Global-Documenting-Truth-2009-English.pdf.” Accessed February 21, 2013. http://ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-DAG-Global-Documenting-Truth-2009-English.pdf.
Jelin, E. “Public Memorialization in Perspective: Truth, Justice and Memory of Past Repression in the Southern Cone of South America.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 1, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 138–156. doi:10.1093/ijtj/ijm006.