Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Constructing history at the museum

Where new Chinese museums suppress recent failings [1/20], American ones almost require the visitor to wear sackcloth and ashes [2/20].
At the elaborately renovated National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, visitors interested in the recent history of the world’s fastest rising power can gaze at the cowboy hat that Deng Xiaoping once wore when he visited the United States, or admire the bullhorn that President Hu Jintao used to exhort people to overcome hardship after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

But if their interests run to the Cultural Revolution that tore the country apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths, they will have to search a back corner of the two-million-square-foot museum, which will complete its opening this month, for a single photograph and three lines of text that are the only reference to that era.


Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed.

Instead, the authorities decided that the exhibition on contemporary China should focus, as did the museum before its extensive makeover, on the party’s triumphs.

Another permanent exhibit, on China’s ancient history, also presents an idealized version of the past. It tells the uplifting story of Chinese ethnic groups pulling together to create “brilliant achievements.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles:
Before you are submerged within the museum’s theatrically darkened central galleries, before you learn how the cafes and intellectual life of the Weimar Republic gradually gave way to the annihilationist racial fantasies Hitler outlined in “Mein Kampf” — before, that is, you experience a variation of the Holocaust narrative with its wrenching genocidal climax — there are other trials a visitor to the Museum of Tolerance here must pass through.

You must first choose a door. One is invitingly labeled “Unprejudiced”; the other, illuminated in red, screams “Prejudiced.” No contest. But one door doesn’t open; the other does. Here, evidently, we must admit we are all prejudiced, not just the guards at Auschwitz.
The Museum of Tolerance is not alone. Even a modest museum devoted to the Holocaust, like the one that opened in 2009 at Queensborough Community College, offers testimonials by students about how the Holocaust has taught them about tolerance and the evils of discrimination.
Though Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington have remained relatively immune to such sweeping moralizing, in most institutions and curriculums, the Holocaust’s lessons are clear: We should all get along, become politically active and be very considerate of our neighbors. If not, well, the differences between hate crimes and the Holocaust — between bullying and Buchenwald — are just a matter of degree.
In China, none were to blame for the Great Leap Forward's killing millions, and certainly not the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao. In America, everyone's a little bit responsible for the Holocaust.


  1. And the interesting thing is of course that both observations are artifacts of exactly the same cultural Marxism.

  2. I have to say, I prefer the Chinese approach. Collective responsibility is bogus, if it happened before you were born you can't take credit or blame.

    Solzhenitsyn in his last book argued for collective responsiblity for communism. Still hasn't published in english.

  3. I think I'd prefer an approach somewhere between the two aforementioned examples. By all mean embrace and celebrate successes, but also acknowledge and learn from failures.