“I am an activist”
Visitors at the House of Slaves in Senegal
Like many museum professionals, my first attraction to museums was through objects that were cool somehow to me (in my case, as a teenage volunteer). There was something about those objects that represented unknown stories and lives. I thought the best part of museum work was the chance to see behind-the-scenes. That’s a long time ago in my museum career. As I read all these blog entries for the difficult issues conference, it caused me to reflect on my own career path. I hope it will do the same for all of you as you engage in an incredibly interesting range of sessions, addressing all kinds of difficult issues.
I work (for 8 months now) in an organization where we think about difficult issues every day. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is the only global network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives that connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights. We turn memory into action. As the Global Networks Program Director I now work for more than 230 museums, historic sites and memory organizations in 55 countries around the world dedicated to making a difference. Who are some of our members? Maison Des Esclaves (the House of Slaves), Africa’s first World Heritage site and a monument to the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the Tea Plantation Workers Museum in Sri Lanka; the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia; President Lincoln’s Cottage in the United States; Memorial para la Concordia/Guatemala; and the Red Star Line Museum in Belgium.
Site of the former 9th of April prison in Tunis
What do we do? We work together on joint projects and individual organizational capacity-building through regional meetings, project support grants, and shared projects such as the pilot digital map of sites of detention and torture by our Middle East and North African sites. We believe that shared knowledge exchange is a vital element of learning. For me, the work has meant a surprising shift that may hold useful lessons for all of us who strive to make museums more relevant, meaningful spaces for all our communities.
Like many of my colleagues, the sense that museums were not neutral places had already begun to happen for me. In my previous life as an independent museum professional, I often consulted with museums that were traditional museums, centered around objects, looking to shift to a more human-rights centered, issue-based perspective. But many of the Coalition’s members are human rights organizations, run by human rights activists with compelling stories of their own, who see museums and archives as powerful tools: tools to promote reconciliation, to share dialogue, to ensure that past abuses are not forgotten, and that we build a better future.
Last spring, I stood in a dusty parking lot in Tunis, Tunisia, once the site of the notorious 9th of April prison. One of our meeting participants looked around, moved a few feet, and said, “here, right here was my cell.” I asked how he felt, and he said, “I do not let this define me. I am not a victim, I am an activist.” This summer, I observed a body-mapping workshop in Sri Lanka where twenty young women created powerful works of art that shared personal stories of the country’s decades long-war and their hopes for the future. As I continue my work with the Coalition, I realize how much we (myself and the museum field as a whole) have to learn from our field’s newcomers all around the world, arriving at the work having combined the idea that museums matter with their passionate commitment to a better, more just, world.
Bodymapping, Sri Lanka
If your museum or historic site brings the same passion for the future to your work, wherever you are, and want to become a part of our global network, I invite you to explore our website and consider becoming a member. Please reach out to me for conversation and questions--and although I won’t be at this conference--you will find me this fall at the CAMOC conference in Mexico City and the IC-MEMO conference here in the US.
We can all be activists.
Global Networks Program Director
International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
Images: Linda Norris