Many years ago, I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It was a transformative experience. It displayed and starkly brought to life the crushing struggles and horrific realities of a policy of racial domination and segregation in that country. Before entering the museum, each visitor is given a ticket. There were two kinds of tickets - White and Non-White. They were not allocated based on the color of one’s skin; it is completely random. I was given a ticket that had White written on it, my companion, Non-White. We were directed toward the main building with two entrances. I had to enter through the door with the White Only sign. Once inside, I was transported to another time and place, a reconstructed train platform circa the early 20th century.
White Only signs were everywhere: at the water fountain, the apothecary, the cafe. You move through the exhibit in hushed silence. At the end of the platform are a flight of steps. When you reach the top, there is a large mirror, forcing you to stop in your tracks and “see” yourself. It forced me to confront my perceived “whiteness.”
Walking through the museum, I was asked to bear witness to injustice, cruelty and dehumanization over and over again. The permanent exhibition is a journey through time, tracing the country’s trajectory from centuries of colonialism and over four decades of apartheid to a place of healing. Psychologically exhausted, you exit the building and come upon a stunning garden. There is a sign that reads: “Coming to terms with the harsh realities of apartheid and its lasting effects is a process of understanding. It is painful for some and liberating to others. Take a moment to walk and contemplate the beauty of this, our country. Think of what has gone before and what is still to come. And then walk away free.”
Museums are spaces that explore the complex relationship between history and memory. They contribute to existing knowledge and understanding and their promise to the visitor is to present material evidence of the past. Some invite you to immerse yourself in a particular historical experience. What they choose to collect, conserve, curate and display often define history, what it is and what it is not.
There are museums built at the site of mass atrocities such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland or in countries that have suffered centuries of oppression like the Apartheid Museum or in what remains of a historical homeland such as the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan.
As stewards and protectors of memory and history, museums construct and transmit meanings. They construct narratives and shape the attitudes and beliefs of a nation; they can also manipulate memories and become a tool for propaganda.
On April 12, 2021, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev attended the opening of a Military Trophy Park-Museum in Baku dedicated to their military victory over Artsakh. Military museums are a space for commemorative displays, ritualistic sites that present “narratives surrounding soldiers and conflict.” They are often perceived as sacred sites where pride and nationhood are steeped in victorious grand narratives and, in the case of Azerbaijan, depicting the “other” in ways so barbaric as to make one think that humanity has lost its humanity.
Displaying the spoils of war is one thing, creating displays of grossly exaggerated life-size figures of dead and dying Armenian soldiers and chained captives is monstrous. And then there were the helmets… Images of Aliyev in Azerbaijani military fatigues walking through an alley of helmets of Armenian soldiers killed in battle was nothing short of macabre. Museums inaugurated by heads of state should be places condemning atrocities, not glorifying them.
Armenians understand the psychological games that Aliyev and his regime are playing. However, those “games” violate and re-victimize the families of the fallen soldiers. And amid this backdrop, there are hundreds of soldiers and civilians still missing. There are almost 200 civilians and soldiers who continue to languish in Azerbaijani prison cells. They are not detainees, they are prisoners of war who have rights under the Geneva Convention that Aliyev is refusing to release, brazenly baiting not only Armenia and Artsakh but the international community, who keeps talking about the need for peaceful co-existence. The message has been lost.
All of this is unfolding before our eyes, before your eyes. It happened during the war as Azerbaijani troops committed documented war crimes. It happened after the war as Azerbaijani troops destroyed Armenian historical and cultural heritage in Artsakh. And now we have a house of horrors of a military museum. The silence from the international community and all those who spoke about preparing “populations for peace” is deafening.