On Walking into Memorial Museums // Discomfort and the Limits of Identification

In July 2018, after having travelled through South Africa for two weeks, I concluded my trip with a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. At the entrance, my travel companions and I—an all-white, Dutch student choir who had just participated in the World Choir Games in Tschwane—randomly received entry tickets which read either “blankes” or “nie-blankes”; white or non-white. Somewhat awkwardly, we queued up for the assigned entrances. Both tickets made us feel uncomfortable; the “white” card provided us with a painful, yet truthful, token of the privileged position of the white population in South Africa (and beyond)–something we had so evidently witnessed over the past two weeks–while the “non-white” card urged us to confront inequality in a way that we, as white students, would never have to experience in reality. Neither felt right.

After having exchanged some awkward smiles across the gap that separated the two lines,  my half of the party entered a hallway that could best be described as a large wire cage. We could see the others through the enclosed grids, but only remotely, and their pathway was neatly separated from ours. From the ceiling of the hallway hung signs from the apartheid era—“Ladies Restroom – Slegs blankes,” “Pretoria – Suburban Station for Non-Whites,” “Railway Medical Officer – Non-whites only”—and large printed identity cards of South Africans, the color of their skin indicated in red writing besides their photo, covered the metal grids. My discomfort upon receiving the ticket carried on. It was not just a discomfort of facing the inequality so indisputably embodied by the wire, the signs and the passports, but also—and perhaps more importantly—of confronting our inevitable implication in this problem; on account of the colors of our skins we were, after all,  inescapably part of the racial division the entrance asked us to act out. After about ten meters the hallways ended; the segregated groups both entered the same exhibition. But the tone was set: by way of its entry design the museum had encouraged us to briefly enact daily life in apartheid South Africa, intending us to “feel” this particular history.

This intriguing architectural design is not without critique. Architectural scholar Nic Coetzer finds that the museum’s spatiality scripts and choreographs a singular and teleological narrative, with simple architectural devices embodying—rather than just symbolizing—the “troubled route from apartheid to democracy” (66). The visitor, upon arrival, is thrust into a specific identity, re-enacting a one-directional path of that particular past. After the entry, the museum recounts the story of the apartheid era, and, when finishing the exhibition, museum-goers conclude their visit in the so-called “garden of healing,” seven pillars of constitution rising above the building. The narrative that is suggested by this is a straight-forward one: we were distinctly separated before, but now we are united again. This teleological approach to the history of South Africa is embodied in the performative trope of the entrance, which in itself glosses over the nuance that the history of apartheid begs for, and is eventually resolved in a peaceful celebration of democracy.

Such an “experiential” entrance seems to be a motif in newly built memorial museums: upon entering, visitors are immersed in a space that choreographs a particular experience. Sometimes the visitor’s role is explicitly assigned—via the non-white or white entry tickets in the Apartheid Museum or the Jewish passport received at the entrance of the Holocaust museum in Washington. Sometimes, the visitor’s role is implicitly suggested by the architectural design of the exhibit space. In the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, visitors enter through a dark, small space which alludes to the exhibition’s subject matter: the transatlantic slave trade. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin invites its audience to walk down a staircase, descending into a poorly lit, unheated space, in which German Jewish history is recounted. Many visitors, so the museum’s website states, experience a feeling of oppression or anxiety in the space, resonating with experiences of the Holocaust (jmberlin.de). The entrances are used as a site of transition, addressing the liminal space between the “real world” and the world of the past. Rather than “just” entering a specific history, the visitors are consciously guided over the museum’s threshold, transporting them from their daily lives into the history the museum wants them to grasp. The entry is a powerful tool in addressing the conjunction as well as the splitting between the past and the present; it functions as a site of connection and separation. But how this duality is incorporated in museums and the extent to which affective principles using reenactment principles are effective seems a contested topic.

By way of such affective approaches, memorial museums enable visitors to give up their traditionally passive role in favor of being an active participant (Sodaro 79). Silke Arnold-de Simine understands such “experiential museums” as sites encouraging visitors’ empathy and “ultimately affective identification with individual sufferers and victims” (Ionescu 102). With the gap between the histories in question and the present increasing every day, museums face the challenge of making violent pasts palpable to their visitors, trying to make them understand the stakes in ensuring that such histories never happen again. Despite their more direct call on the role of the visitors, and their attempt to encourage them to reflect on their own responsibility, these museums often interpellate a predetermined moral subject in a somewhat prescribed fashion (Arnold-de Simine 18). Although the museums’ stated aim might be to “disturb the visitors into a state of active responsibility,” Arnold-de Simine finds that, as a site of moral and national instruction, the openness of this aim is limited (18). Then, there is the possibility that these memorial museums, with their predetermined affective experience, might not disturb people into a state of responsibility but rather anger, shock or (and perhaps most problematically) re-traumatize visitors. Shouldn’t we stay clear of a re-enactment of segregation all together?

Although Coetzer’s critiques of the Apartheid Museum are not related to the potential of its white and non-white enactment backfiring, his interpretations resonate with Arnold-de Simine’s concerns for the limits of affective identification. Coetzer expresses concern with the way the museum presents South Africa’s history of apartheid as a single narrative supported by the embodied experience of the visitor. Can, following Coetzer and Arnold-de-Simine’s approach, a two-fold identity re-enactment ever capture the complexities of the apartheid era?  And is “affective identification” what a museum should strive for? Is it not, with Coetzer, the task of memorial museums to go beyond singular narratives and clearly delineated subject-positions in order to foster a productive and critical dialogue that even extends beyond the museum walls? And if so, to what extent can museums dedicated to traumatic pasts engage visitors in thinking beyond simplistic, binary narratives?

In his recent work The Implicated Subject, Michael Rothberg argues that a recognition of the plethora of subject-positions that surround the triangulation of perpetrator-victim-bystander—introduced under the umbrella term “implicated subjects”—might lead to productive reflection on the past and solidarity in the present. Rothberg makes a case for nonidentification: by diverging from acts of identification with victim or perpetrator as well as acts of disidentification (which allows for an unproductive distancing), nonidentification opens up a way to recognize implication (6). Although Rothberg finds that “acts of solidarity-as-identification” with specific subject-positions can be successful in garnering attention for that with whom or what one identifies, they have their limits (4). He aptly illustrates such bounds by outlining common critiques on white people’s identification with black people: “White people, the convincing argument ran, do not in fact experience the kind of profiling and ‘justified’ violence to which black people are daily exposed, nor can they necessarily comprehend easily the history of racialization and unfreedom … that many see as lying behind contemporary experiences” (4).[1] This last part points to a particularly urgent problem: what if those who attempt to identify with victimized subjects simply cannot comprehend these subjects’ experiences?

A similar question applies to the Apartheid Museum’s approach. If a visitor is thrust into a non-dynamic process of identification, can they effectively reflect on the complexities of the apartheid regime, as well as their own subject-position in relation to this particular history? The museum describes its permanent exhibition—which includes the segregated entrance—as “a trip through time that traces the country’s footsteps from these dark days of bondage to a place of healing founded on the principles of a democracy” (apartheidmuseum.org). This trip through time, however, does not, as Coetzer argues, accommodate the “multiplicities of interpretation” and multifaceted experiences that museums in South Africa might want to reflect on (68). Starting with the affective experience of being white or non-white, visitors eventually walk towards resolution, architecturally embodied in the museum’s final location: the garden—“a place of healing.”  Through this sequence, the museum offers a narrative of closure and redemption, its climax being an “exit vestibule or porch—adjacent to the segregated entrance—that is constructed by seven pillars embodying the main tenets of the post-apartheid constitution” (68). The solutionary role of the garden is aptly portrayed in the museum’s reflection on its narrative: “A journey through the Apartheid Museum takes you into the heart of the darkness of evil, and out again into the light” (Apartheidmuseum.org). The garden is a sober space, which, so the museum’s website states, “offers visitors a space for reflection.” The landscape of the garden, they find, is “South African, and conveys the harsh beauty of our country” (Apartheidmuseum.org).

Concluding the visit by reflecting in a “place of healing,” as Coetzer aptly argues, is not an appropriate museological choice in face of the still ongoing struggles of South Africa, as well as the traumas the apartheid era has left behind. In fact, the initial segregation and eventual unification of white and non-white identities (through a simple process of reflection and “healing”) in the museum’s design can limit processes of reflection that lie at the heart of understanding the various forms of implication that were, and still are, at play in South Africa.

Such problematic tendencies of closure and redemption are addressed by historian Dominick LaCapra, who has expressed concern with the affective appropriation of experience when aiming to represent trauma and victimhood. LaCapra makes a case for “empathic unsettlement”: an openness to the experiences of others without appropriating these. Empathic unsettlement “poses a barrier to closure” and places “in jeopardy harmonizing or spiritually uplifting accounts of extreme events” (41). LaCapra, writing in 2001, still works from within the triadic model of perpetrator, victim and bystander, and, since he is most interested in the position of the victim, he does not directly address the concept of implication. Nevertheless, he aptly points out a need for jeopardizing narratives that end in harmony and closure. Unsettling such narratives can be fruitful in encouraging a critical reflection on implication in the now.

Furthering LaCapra’s line of argumentation, memory scholar Susanne Knittel argues that—when conducted well—reflections on the past can foster a sense of discomfort when the continuities between past and present, as well as “our implicatedness in structures and processes of violence, discrimination, and exploitation,” come to the fore (383). Some experiential museums, such as the Apartheid Museum, incorporate architectural elements that invite identification in an attempt to elicit a potentially reflective sense of discomfort. In the eerie atmosphere created by the slanted walls and dark voids in Berlin’s Libeskind Museum, visitors are encouraged to reflect on the Holocaust while engaging with their own feelings of unease. A similar effect is produced when visitors of Washington’s NMAAHC start their journey through African American history with an uncomfortable walk through a dark and cramped space.

To an extent, these experiences can be successful. Some visitors of the Libeskind museum and NMAAHC have expressed their lingering sense of discomfort and reflection upon exiting the buildings; the two museums (and their architecture) do not aim to resolve these feelings. But although my travel companions and I found it hard to be confronted with the implications of our own skin color after having received our tickets in the Apartheid Museum, this museum seemed to have missed the opportunity for maintaining this uncomfortable, and potentially productive, feeling due to their desire for a closing narrative. The pillars and garden of healing found at the end of the Apartheid Museum are emblematic: their redemptive effect allows visitors to wrap up their trip to the museum with a sense of harmony and relief, thereby defying a lingering discomfort and the subsequent critical reflection on implication this might invite. The problem, then, is not so much the identificatory process at the entrance, but rather the too easy and uncritical resolution of that process. As LaCapra states:

Redemptive narrative is a narrative that denies the trauma that brought it into existence. And more experimental, nonredemptive narratives are narratives that are trying to come to terms with trauma in a post-traumatic context, in ways that involve both acting out and working through. (179)

Coetzer’s critiques of the Apartheid Museum, then, are geared towards the redemptive narrative it opts for. Although a legitimate assertion, the narrative he criticizes might actually also successfully elicit an experience of discomfort and reflection precisely because this closing narrative does not resonate with the world beyond the museum walls. For many international visitors of South Africa, the country showcases clear marks of its heritage of segregation and inequality. The tension between the redemptive story and this real society, then, might contribute to a sense of unease and reflection. One could, however, argue that this places too much emphasis on the visitors’ individual willingness and inclination to engage with these issues, and thus acquits the museum of its role in critically examining the South African past and issues of implication. Furthermore, experiencing a contrast between the museum and the outside world might not be self-evident to those—such as Coetzer—who are immersed in South African society on a day to day basis. Personally, I was struck by what I perceived as a contrast between the museum’s closing narrative, and what I saw in my two-week visit of the country. However, this perceived contrast might have had a lot to do with my own background and its inapplicability to some of the fundamental values and issues that lie beneath South African society. What if the Apartheid Museum had challenged its own desire for closure, and what if visitors, instead of finding resolution in the garden of “healing,” would face another “nonredemptive” gateway on the way out? By pointing visitors towards the issues that remain throughout South Africa today, the museum could perhaps have taken up an active role in facilitating a fusion of the diverse horizons of its visitors.

Today, I do not remember whether I received a “white” or “non-white” ticket at the entrance. It did not matter: towards the end of the visit my group came back together and walked out in harmony. Perhaps, if we had walked into the “outside” world through a more ambiguous exit than the “garden of healing”—for instance, by having to choose between two non-descript copies of the entrances at the start of the museum when leaving—the uneasy feeling the first gates elicited could have been encouraged once more, thus leading us to discuss our own implication more explicitly. Through such a process of nonidentification regarding the subjects of the apartheid regime, visitors, upon stepping out of the museum, would be actively stimulated to critically reflect on the legacy of apartheid, as well as their complex relation to this legacy as implicated subjects.

Written by Marit van de Warenburg

Works Cited:

Arnold-de-Simine, Silke. “Memory Museum and Museum Text: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” Theory, Culture and Society 29.1 (2012): 14-35.
Coetzer, Nic. “Narrative Space. Three post-apartheid museums reconsidered.” Museum Making, ed. Suzanne MacLeod et al. Routledge, 2012.
Ionescu, Arleen. The Memorial Ethics of Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.
Knittel, Susanne. “The Ethics of Discomfort: Perpetrator Studies and/as Education after Auschwitz.” The Routledge International Handbook of Perpetrator Studies.
LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.
Sodaro, Amy. “Memory, History and Nostalgia in Berlin’s Jewish Museum.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 26.1 (2013): 77-91.
Rothberg, Michael. The Implicated Subject. Stanford UP, 2019.


[1] Rothberg addresses the issue of identification—and the importance of recognizing implication beyond that—through the various responses to the death of Trayvon Martin, ranging from slogans such as “We are all Trayvon Martin” to slogans like “We are all George Zimmerman” (the man who killed Martin) and eventually to nonidentifcation through the slogan “We are not Trayvon Martin” (see: “Introduction” The Implicated Subject).

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