Leaving The Past Behind: Donating Trauma To Museums
A small pile of air sickness bags. A fluffy bunny. A tablecloth. Underpants. A red woolen coat. An axe. An iron. A mobile phone. Dried roses. Improvised lamps and stoves. School satchels. Blue UN school workbooks. Canned goods. A recreated kitchen.
For the most part, these donated items may seem strange occupants of carefully tended museums. Most of the items are not particularly old, beautiful, or unique. They are, instead, mass-produced, ordinary, everyday things. Their import is only given to them through their placement within the confines of the very different museums in which they now live. They are given a purpose above and beyond their familiarity: they are now asked to connote loss even while they must also acknowledge hope. They must present individual memories, even while making evident the impossibility of truly conveying such personal material to the strangers who file past these strange exhibits. In short, they are asked to exist in both their subjective and objective states as ‘things’ at the very same time (Brown, 2001, 5).
This paper considers the sublimity of these objects to ask the question: How might memory come to an end? Or rather, how might memory cease to be? Does memory collapse when faced with the unthinkable, or when presented with the banal? Whose memories are ending; whose are merely developing through the viewing of these objects?
The two museums which house the objects noted above are very different institutions with very different purposes, even though both revolve around a singular theme, unusual in the museum world: breakage. The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, acknowledges this idea in its very title. Its objective is to present the detritus of relationships which have ended; to allow for a memorial for certain objects, symbolizing a failed union, to exist, even though the parties to these relationships no longer wish to keep them. On the other hand, the exhibition of the Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1995 in the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, commemorates the 1395 days of the Bosnian-Serb siege of the city of Sarajevo through its collection of implements invented and improvised by the people of that city so they could continue to live, work, study, eat, even while their city was literally broken apart around them.
The elevation of the things in these museums to the status of ‘exhibit’ means that the viewers are asked to perceive that which Arjun Appadurai has called their ‘cultural biography’ (2006, 15); in other words, these donated items are shown to have developed their own ‘memory’, their own ‘life’. Due to their indication of hardship, separation, connection, sentimental significance, economic worth, practical significance, they exceed their initial place as mere products and become markers of those who once used, held, loved them. They become vehicles of meaning, ‘congeal[ing] moments in a longer social trajectory’, aspiring to permanence, even while they stubbornly hold on to their materiality, which remains forever volatile, protected from its own fragility only by the museum’s demand that we ‘not touch’ lest we reveal the impermanence at the heart of any object (Appadurai, 2006, 15).
The relationship between museums and things is indivisible; for museums depend on collections of things to exist at all – in a sense this could be considered to be all they are – yet, they also transcend the things they exhibit, placing them within some form of orderly meaning-making, even while the things themselves escape these very ties that bind, retaining their own sublimity in the face of all attempts to pin their meaning down. Indeed, the very ‘thingness’ of the museum, in terms of space, place and content, is variously in both conflict and harmony with the specificity of the things placed within it.
Certainly, the complexity of the relationship between the thing displayed and the museum displaying it is nowhere more pronounced than in the Museum of Broken Relationships. Housed in part of a former palace in the Upper Town in Zagreb, the museum opened in 2010 as a permanent resting place for a travelling exhibition that had been on a world tour to twelve countries across the preceding four years. The exhibition grew as it went, as the curators asked for donations in all the countries they visited. The idea for the museum was conceived in 2006 by two artists, Drazen Grubisic and Olinka Vištica, in an effort to provide a space for objects that have immense emotional worth within a love relationship, but which are stranded when the relationship ends. The ex-lovers no longer want the burden of owning such reminders of their love, but at the same time, they can’t bear for them to be simply forgotten and discarded. In many ways, donation to the museum is therapeutic, as Grubisic acknowledges: “I witness how hard it is for people to give away these tokens that carry the energy of two people. And once it’s done, they are liberated from the haunting memory of the past, given a fresh chance to restart all over again.” (cited in Arsu, 2010) In effect, then, according to Grubisic, the museum offers to carry the trauma of the break up in whatever way that is understood by the participants. It would seem, though, from the placards that accompany each object, that every contribution indicates an important relationship, no matter how brief. For some, their donation might suggest their suffering of that which has been named ‘broken heart syndrome’. This syndrome has been tracked at leading heart clinics in USA since 2005, as its symptoms mimic those of heart attacks (Service, 2011, 66), and can, thus, have serious health implications. For others, such as the woman with the axe, the loss of love may be less a physical ailment and more an emotional and psychological problem. Indeed, according to Stanton Peele, love is one of the most powerful addictions on earth, topping the more prosaic, such as alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs and even cigarettes, which only makes the syndrome associated with its loss all the more dramatic and devastating (Service, 2011, 64). Places such as the Museum of Broken Relationships, thus, could be vital in the healing process, although the memorialization is far more complex than Grubisic implies.
The museum allows the people who donate the pieces to write their own explanation or narrative regarding it, which maintains the careful distinction between the objectification of the object, and its subjectification through its former owner. Or in other words, the thing-ness of the object as it is perceived by the person who owned it, and that which exceeds their materialization as objects, their unmediated existence as a thing before its perception (Heidegger, 1996, 70) is kept forever visible. We are not permitted to forget that, on the one hand, these objects are just things, imbued with meaning only by those who owned them, while on the other, they carry the impossible history of a love relationship within their confines. They both present and exceed their function as once loved objects. Indeed, as Olinka Vištica states, these objects enable ‘the fusion between immutable reality, the object itself that can trigger memory, and the very mutable character of a personal story, which was the alternate power to sublimate memory’ (2009, 2). They are both personal, and impersonal; both specific and universal, both full of memories and a perfect way to transfer one’s painful personal remembrances into the public record and so forever alter their ability to force us to remember the past.
An axe hangs on a wall, menacing and benign at the same time: it is on the wall of a museum, so its potential as a weapon is diminished, but the story told about it reinfuses it with violence and terrible loss. The axe belonged to a single woman who used it to end a relationship, while at the same time it embodies revenge, rage and love:
An Ex-Axe (1995) Berlin, Germany: She was the first woman that I let move in with me. All my friends thought I needed to learn to let people in more. A few moths after she moved in, I was offered to travel to the US. She could not come along. At the airport, we said goodbye in tears, and she was assuring me she could not survive three weeks without me. I returned after three weeks, and she said, “I fell in love with someone else. I have known her for just 4 days, but I know that she can give me everything that you cannot.” I was banal and asked about her plans regarding our life together. The next day she still had no answer, so I kicked her out. She immediately went on holiday with her new girlfriend while her furniture stayed with me. Not knowing what to do with my anger, I finally bought this axe at Karstadt to blow off steam and to give her at least a small feeling of loss – which she obviously did not have after our break-up. In the 14 days of her holiday, every day I axed one piece of furniture. I kept the remains there, as an expression of my inner condition. The more her room filled with chopped furniture acquiring the look of my soul, the better I felt. Two weeks after she left, she came back for the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good. The axe was promoted to a therapy instrument. (Museum catalogue, 2009, 57)
An out of date mobile phone is propped against a shelf. The former owner of this piece is far more succinct as to its history:
A Cell Phone (July 12, 2001 – April 14, 2004) Zagreb, Croatia: It was 300 days too long. He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more. (Museum catalogue, 2009, 50)
In each case, these simple objects project both the life they have lived, and the intransigence of their material ‘thingness’. We are forced to confront both the immediacy and particularity of the axe used to chop furniture, the phone used to cut off contact, while we must also confront the very ordinariness of these items in which lies their sublimity. They have acquired a cultural biography, yet their usefulness is now entirely removed: they are exhibits, they must stand for more than their mere utility. We are not allowed to run our fingers over the blade of the axe, to press the buttons on the phone, because these things are now preserved, part of the communal record of the meaning-making surrounding broken relationships. To touch might be to break and even though these objects are entirely everyday, they are also most certainly unusual and cannot be replaced, even by an object made in the same factory as they themselves. Another axe, another phone, will not be able to carry the weight of the history of these everyday items; for this reason, we must leave them alone. They are housed in a special place now, a museum with white walls and neatly typed tales, which demands that we see them as special objects, even while their very familiarity gives the lie to this reverence. Further, they are also indicative of hope, even as they represent despair, for they suggest that the person once owning them has ‘moved on’ and found a new relationship; that broken relationships are capable of being replaced with whole ones.
On the other hand, the Siege of Sarajevo exhibit in the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo presents its donated objects in a very different style. This exhibit takes up one large room in the battered museum, still riddled with bullet scars both within and without, and attempts to provide a cohesive narrative of the siege of the city which lasted from May 1992 until February 1996. This is not to say that the exhibit tells the story of military movements and United Nations inadequacy, although these are clearly implied; instead it attempts to explain the unthinkable: how between 300000- 380000 people survived the longest siege in modern warfare. To explicate this concept, the museum uses items donated from those who lived through the siege to show precisely how the citizens of Sarajevo managed to remain alive. The museum does not include any of the enormous amounts of filmed footage of people running for their lives while merely shopping for bread and milk; nor does it include digitized interviews with survivors. Instead, it relies entirely on things to elucidate life in a death zone.
The things included in the exhibit are diverse. They include watering cans made out of a USA oil tin; ‘rifles’ made out of gas and plumbing pipes welded together which lack triggers and operate more like highly dangerous sling shots; and uniforms for the civilian army cut from blankets and tarpaulins paired with sandshoes instead of military boots. Grenades made out of tin cans, which had to have been as hazardous to the user as to the intended victim, given their propensity to explode in the thrower’s hand before detonation, also litter the cases containing the items dedicated to the ‘military’ defence of Sarajevo.
The most resourcefulness can be seen in the household items, progressively improvised as conditions worsened. In a city without electricity, gas or running water, people’s living conditions changed dramatically. Forced to rehouse whole families in the kitchens of small apartments, so the occupants could avoid being shot, the centre of the home soon became the ‘drum’ stove used for heating and cooking. Generally, these were made out of upturned pots or oil cans, and had a grate across the top and flues inserted through windows which had long before lost all their glass due to the constant shelling. Instead, windows were covered with the plastic covering of the UN aid parcels smuggled into the city; reinforced and opaque, this plastic was both relatively durable and prevented snipers seeing inside individual apartments and houses. The kitchens in Bosnian houses are often located towards the rear of the dwelling, which gave them added security. Nevertheless, standing anywhere near a window was considered suicide. Fuel was a constant problem, especially as the green zones of the city were quickly converted to firewood; in many cases, citizens burnt their books in order to survive one more night. Balconies, however, developed a whole new value: as vegetable gardens, carefully tended throughout strikes and shelling. These tiny gardens were indispensable in supplementing the meager diet of the Sarajevans, whose supplies mostly came from humanitarian aid. Indeed, people improvised their own recipes, from grass pie to fake gorgonzola.
Other inventions included trolleys made of beer crates and roller skates used for lugging water home from public amenities; a vacuum flask made from a glass bottle coated in orange packing tape and enclosed in a cardboard box; a torch designed from a bicycle lamp and a miniature dynamo which was powered by cranking the handle of a coffee or meat grinder. The most clever innovations, though, were surely the strange lights made of cans and bottles that were rigged up to keep the hospital open and to ensure operations were on schedule.
Not all items are ingenious, however. Some are merely sad and terribly ordinary. In one section, devoted to Sarajevo’s children, blue UN workbooks are laid out, presenting the childish stories or mathematical problems the children produced in their tiny schools held in bombed out buildings, sitting on staircases. These blue books, and the teachers’ conscientiously filled out attendance lists, have a darker flavour, though, when one realises that the odd brownish stains splashed across their surfaces is the blood of those same children and their teachers, gunned down by snipers who frequently targeted schools. Indeed, many of the 1500 children who died in Sarajevo, died in those little rooms, while learning their lessons.
Perhaps one of the most affecting of the exhibits in the museum is the recreated kitchen, made entirely from items donated by survivors. The tiny room, with its plastic window, is paradoxically both suffocating and comforting. The bed is on the floor, hidden at the back; the ‘stove’ is clearly serving several different purposes at once; the table is littered with the detritus of school children everywhere – books, pens, cups – even while it also contains the weird array of foodstuffs waiting to be made into the evening meal (including dry goods dating from the Vietnam period which were part of the humanitarian aid provisions!). This is the type of reconstruction that brings the ordinary both into its own as the ‘ordinary’, while at the same time remaining strange in its reproduction of an era that has gone. People rarely live like this, except in siege zones. This is a moment where the everyday shows us its sublimity; demonstrates for us the impossibility of understanding even as we gawk and comment over ‘human ingenuity’. Some of the people who lived in such kitchens would have been shot in their beds, on the balcony, at the table. We look at the items of the ones who managed to stay out of the snipers’ range; we are looking at the construct of the lucky, even as it is also evident that no one was ‘lucky’ in this war.
The museum shows us the various ways in which people ‘survived’, using everyday items, worth nothing now, but priceless during the siege. These items, especially stoves, were absolutely essential to life, yet now they are donatable ‘gifts’ to a museum. They are made from scraps, but each one tells a tale about the people it helped to warm and feed. They are both objects, in the sense of material things, and sublime things, imbued with the essence of life and death. The UN blue books demonstrate this paradox most clearly: they show the ordinary schoolwork that children everywhere undertake, even while they force us to contemplate their very uselessness as the children who wrote the words and the numerals encapsulated within their pages are shot, their blood leaching across the pages, smearing the penmanship, denying childhood invocations to gain an education and, ultimately, to ‘grow up’.
Once more, we are faced with the strange face of memorialization. For this museum, like the Museum of Broken Relationships, emphasizes the ordinary at the same time as demonstrating the extraordinary. The things in this museum lie both within and without our understanding, retaining their familiarity as mundane things, even while they taunt us with their exceptionality as objects lifted out of their banality and made sublime. Their very ingeniousness reinforces the hope with they are still imbued: humans can survive almost anything and these people did. In the midst of war, life must continue any way and using anything it can to so do.
Yet, these memorials to breakage belie a more fundamental question than that of presentation. They ask us to consider why we choose to remember at all. Why do we require buildings we can visit to remind ourselves of our own past? Both the museums discussed in this essay contain modern materials and they commemorate recent happenings. They aren’t conserving ancient artifacts from long dead civilizations. Instead, they mirror our own lives back to us, ‘reminding’ us of events we lived through, even if from afar. There are several reasons as to why we formalize memory-making. According to Gil Eyal, these include firstly, a duty to remember boosted by a horror of forgetting; without memory we have no ‘guarantor of identity’ and would be at the mercy of those who might distort or censor ‘our’ past (2004, 7). Secondly, we must choose what requires remembering, which part of the past will be deemed necessary for retention; hence, we must remember even traumatic events although they hurt us to do so because ‘the task of memory is to combat repression and its abnormal consequences by exposing oneself to [the] pain’ of remembrance (2004, 7). So, on the one hand, we must remember so that we maintain our own identity in the face of invocations to forget; while on the other, we must face our trauma in order to avoid repression and so we will able to keep the most important moments in our culture alive (2004, 6). Without museums, then, we run the risk of condemning ourselves to the blare of the constant present, to the perpetual surface nature of ‘reality.
Certainly, as Marilyn Lake observes, the sheer number of memorials and museums grew exponentially throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The construction of these monuments to collective memory were largely based on the injunction ‘Lest We Forget’, and thus carried a certain anxiety within them, even as they worked to place ‘memory in external deposits, located not within people, but within shared public space’ (Savage, cited in Lake, 2006, 1). The memory of individuals became the memory of nations; the museum or the memorial became the repository of these memories, the place to visit when one felt like remembering that which was with one all the time in any case: a shared, contemporary ‘history’.
Yet, museums are not innocent or neutral spaces or places. They may collect our ‘memories’ along with our memorabilia, but they also determine what our past will look like. As Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone observe: ‘Memorials and museums represent public statements about what the past has been, and how the present should acknowledge it; who should be remembered and who should be forgotten; which acts or events are foundational, which marginal; what gets respected, what neglected’ (2012, 13). Furthermore, according to Michael Heyman, former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, museums are places to which people look to determine their societies’ values: ‘to represent permanence in a changing world, and in general just to sort out what matters.’ (cited in Davison, 2006, 95) Thus, museums have become, in Selma Thomas’ words, ‘places of learning’, rather than only repositories of knowledge housing the treasures of an individual culture. Now, museums exist as much to teach the audience about specific events or periods, as they do to provide safe harbor for the detritus of the past (2008, 87)
Conflict museums, marking the permanent public memorial to a specific atrocity, certainly aim to educate those who visit by revealing the past so that we might learn from it. In general, these types of museums embody aims such as remembrance, preservation, education, and prevention; they display the objects that mark the atrocity in an attempt to get the visitors to both remember and/or understand something of what occurred, even while they insist that such violations of human rights must be prevented in the future (Hamber, 2012, 269). The hope in all these museums is that in looking back, we might enact a future in which ‘never again’ will such atrocities occur. This may seem a regressive function, given the millions of war memorials around the globe which are imbued with the ‘never again’ function. However, conflict museums avoid being passé due to their unique focus on the victim. War memorials tend to look closely at the experience of the soldier and the horror of war itself; conflict museums have a far broader remit than only instances of outright war and tend to concentrate on the victims of atrocity. Indeed, some have argued that conflict museums are ‘emotions factories’ that ‘create an overidentification with the victim, precluding people from thinking of themselves as potential victimizers’ and instead simply conflate the visitor with the victim (Hamber, 2012, 272). Instead of inspiring visitors to new ideas and acts in the prevention of violence, Susan Jacoby has argued that these sites can ‘leave tourists with a self-satisfied glow at having given up a day of ordinary sightseeing and shopping for an exhibit of Hell on Earth (cited in Hamber, 2012, 276).
Museums, such as the ones described by Jacoby could well include the two I am focusing on in this paper, although I intend to argue that their function is more profound than she suggests. In the first instance, both could be placed within the ‘dark tourism’ subset of historical exhibit. The term ‘dark tourism’ only entered our vocabulary in 1996 when the International Journal of Heritage Studies ran a special issue on tourism that is associated with death, atrocity or disaster. These sites were classified into two different types: primary sites where actual disasters occurred, and secondary sites which include museums which commemorate tragedy and death (Wight, 2006, 120). Rather than seeing such museums and sites as mere ‘emotions factories’, as the dismissive commentators on dark tourism I have just mentioned suggest, researchers such as Laura Beth Clark argue that something much more complex and profound may be occurring between visitor and memorial. In her study of one hundred such places in seventeen countries, Clark argues that ‘visiting sites of previous atrocity is not an avoidance strategy as such, but rather a form of repetition compulsion, a (re)dramatization of unresolved trauma’ (cited in Hamber, 2012, 276). Visitors continue to visit these sites because ‘”unrepresentable” violence continues in the world and [the sites] serve as mirrors of reality within a parallel (real) world’ (Clark, cited in Hamber, 2012, 276). Sites of dark tourism, and especially conflict museums, are thus not about a ‘never again’ mentality, but instead indicate a sad perspective that this kind of thing has always happened and, indeed, will never stop happening. The last conflict museum will open when the last conflict occurs. Nevertheless, even Clark has discovered that most dark tourism / conflict museum sites do not offer multiple perspectives: the victim’s story is paramount, and this can lead to a fairly narrow form of identification for the viewer with little complexity of vision, especially into how these events come to occur and why. Instead, we are left with the overwhelming misery and tragedy of the victims, and none of the institutional and ideological grounding that make such tragedies both possible in the first place, and never likely to end in the second.
The Siege Exhibit in Sarajevo works well within the bounds of conflict museums and as a site for dark tourism. This exhibit fulfills its dual functions of exposing the horror, yet indicating the hope, thus perfectly preserving the purpose of such museums. Visitors are exposed to the ‘unrepresentable’ violence through the most arbitrary of things demonstrating the extraordinary ingenuity of people even at the worst moments of their lives. The focus is solely on the victims of the siege, even as we are given the basic facts about how it began and why. Yet, at no point does the exhibit suggest that this horror will never happen again; (that it should never happen again is a given). Instead, the extraordinary nature of the experience of Sarajevans during the siege is made ‘representable’ through the very nature of ordinary things, even while these very things retain their sublimity, their materiality, their clear evidence that they exceeded their own purpose only to end up with no purpose at all as exhibits in a museum. No-one, hopefully, will need to cook on those drum stoves ever again, the strange lighting fixtures used in the hospital won’t need connection, the trundle carts for water will remain fossils. And this is where the very sublimity of representation occurs: they can both show but cannot be used; they can suggest the horror of a siege, but in truth, cannot transport us there. They are the most real of objects in their frightening confrontation with violence, danger and death; but they are also just objects, recognisable and familiar. Further, such objects are available only for tourists these days; few Sarajevans visit the exhibit , even as it appears as a ‘must see’ in the guidebooks on Sarajevo clutched by guests to the city. As Justin McGuirk observes in his article on the exhibit: ‘The reason the locals are not interested is that they would rather forget about the objects inside” (2011, np)
This forgetting is also evident in the Museum of Broken Relationships, housing objects which, once donated, are not usually seen again by their original owners. Indeed, the whole point of the museum is to allow ex-lovers to rid themselves of these leftovers from their pasts, even while granting them iconic status within the confines of this museum. Forgetting is as much a part of both these museums as is remembrance, it seems. Those who suffered the tragedies they commemorate donate the triggers of difficult emotions so that they can move on, while those who visit such museums want to understand those very tragedies, to attempt to stand within the sufferers’ shoes as it were, so they can know from what we need to move on. On the one side, we have the ‘end of memory’ in the guise of deliberate moves to forget; while on the other, we have an ‘end of memory’ in the sense that the only way we, as visitors to another world, will ever attempt ‘understanding’ is to come face to face with these sublime objects which tell us both everything and nothing about that which we wish to experience.
The donation of these ‘props’ to trauma have several purposes. They can ‘ward off disintegration and sustain a sense of self’ for the traumatized, even as they recognize almost total loss in some cases (Radstone and Hodgkin, 2003, 19). Yet, they also provide the means for public remembrance of such loss; absence is paradoxical – it is both inherent in the objects placed to breach the emptiness, but is invaded with that emptiness every time a visitor glances in its direction. Those who are traumatized by the events featured in these museums, as well as those who empathize along with them upon visiting the museums, may be doing far more than allowing for a process of communal remembrance and private ignoring. Instead, as Dominick La Capra claims, such places may well continue the trauma:
One’s bond with the dead, especially with dead intimates, may invest trauma with value and make its reliving a painful but necessary commemoration or memorial to which one remains dedicated or at least bound. This situation may create a more or less unconscious desire to remain within trauma. It certainly invalidates any form of conceptual or narrative closure and it may also generate resistances to the role of any counterforces, for example, those involved in mourning understood not simply as isolated grieving or endless bereavement but as a social process that may be at least partly effective in returning one to the demands and responsibilities of social life. (2001, 22-3)
Far from ignoring or eradicating the trauma, museums such as the two studied here, keep trauma alive in ways that both allow those who were traumatised to return to ‘life’ (as there is a place to ‘store’ the trauma), while permitting them to remain within the trauma, as they have made both space and provided a place for constant remembrance. It is at this moment that the end of memory might be found, even while hiding in plain sight. For, as we remember trauma, we dislocate our own personal memory; trauma becomes both public and outside, just as memory becomes both deeply inaccessible and personal, even while it is fixed on neat museum placards delineating ‘our’ experience.
The very work of these two museums – to memorialize trauma – is in itself a paradoxical undertaking. For as Cathy Caruth reminds us: ‘The traumatized … carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess.’ (1995, 5) This concept of traumatic experience, as both an encounter and an immediate numbing, due to the overwhelming nature of the occurrence, makes its memorialization somewhat enigmatic: can an event be memorialized via the things that indicate that it happened even while those who lived through it do not have full access to the memory of it happening? If the temporal delay common to traumatic experience, to carry the individual past the initial shock, cause that which Dori Laub has called the ‘collapse of witnessing’ (cited in Caruth, 1995, 10), does this mean that in trying to create memorials to atrocity, we are indeed facing the end of memory, forcing ourselves to acknowledge the deep void at the heart of that which cannot be understood, secured, written, reduced to a plaque on a wall? Perhaps all museums face this question; conflict museums certainly do as they try to represent ‘unexperienced experience’ (Browne, 1990, 21), coming to terms, as they must, with that which survivors are unable to conveniently re-live for the dark tourists who are only too desperate to ‘understand’, to ‘suffer’.
Does memory collapse when faced with the unthinkable or the banal? In answering this question asked at the beginning of this paper, it is evident that at times of trauma, the banal becomes the unthinkable: the strange inventions of Sarajevans during the siege are clearly banal, created as they are out of ordinary materials, while representing the unthinkable. These objects indicate a failure of memory at several levels: in the first instance, they force the tourist to recognize that they, themselves, have no actual ‘memory’ of this event, no matter how much vicarious material was consumed; in the next, they demonstrate their own status as detritus, as now useless junk, unwanted by the Sarajevans themselves; finally, they show the ‘unthinkability’ of the siege itself as this extraordinarily traumatic event is reduced to a few souvenirs, lacking individual back stories so that not even the most innocent and benign can be linked to a specific family or person. The Siege Exhibit floats in an interspace of a shared history and a shared desire to forget; memory is both welcome here in very general terms, while personal, individual memory is deeply unwelcome. So, even as the museum memorializes the siege for public consumption, it also carefully evades contact with the particular and the private. This elision means that while the visitor might learn of the various clever ways the people of Sarajevo survived, they do not learn very much at all about what it meant to survive in the ways that they did, nor the significances Sarajevans attach to their own survival.
The Museum of Broken Relationships offers us a very similar experience to the Siege Exhibit in that it both takes us into the world of the lover, but prevents us from ever getting to close to the kernel of the Real in that experience. The people who donate their former treasures to the museum provide a story which both invites us to share their experience through the narrative, and makes evident that these are not our experiences. Love may be familiar to all in the abstract, but it is certainly not so in the particular. As with the Siege Exhibit, the visitor is both welcomed and politely distanced: we all have understandings of broken relationships, we don’t all have relationships like these. Once again, the museum is a memorial both to remembrance and forgetting; it may attach back stories to the individual things on display, but it also informs us that these very same people who wrote these stories donated these items precisely so they could forget for good. Memory is again at the heart of the museum, even while it signals loss, absence and a need to move on.
To conclude, the visitor to both museums discussed in this paper is faced with a curious double gesture. Invited through the doors, they find memory has failed them even in a place where one might expect memory to be finally, incontrovertibly preserved. Instead, the visitor is faced with things to stand in for the traumatic experiences denoted in the very names of these institutions. These small, inconsequential things are left to carry the impossible burden of traumatic memory for the survivors who have very definitely left the building. The end of memory comes when the visitor is finally left to realise that in standing in front of an axe or a drum stove they are no closer really to the experience of the original owner’s misery and fear. The things may be imbued with these emotions, but they can never be ours. Finally, we come up against the solidity of the Real, the sublimity of the traumatic object, and we must accept our own inability to ever, finally, understand memory, whether collective or personal, whether that of others or our own.
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Dr Belinda Morrissey is a Lecturer in Writing and Communication at Monash University. She is the author of When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 2003). She has chapters published in Millennial Cinema: Representations of Memory in Cinema (Columbia University Press, Oxford UK, 2012), and in Geography and Memory: Explorations in Identity, Place and Becoming (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2012). Her current research considers the impact of trauma on memory, place and space.