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Memorial Museums: Trauma on Display

Cities and countries have long turned to memorializing efforts — like statues, monuments, plaques, and more — to remember major traumatic events from the past. But that has been changing over the course of the 21st century. According to Professor Amy Sodaro (Borough of Manhattan Community College), attempts to understand significant trauma increasingly involve education-based memorialization.

In her new book Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence, Sodaro examines how many communities, be they groups or countries, work through staggering events like 9/11 by building museums to parse through them.

Her book looks at five specific case studies: Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, New York’s National September 11 Memorial Museum, Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and Hungary’s House of Terror. She selected the five because they showcased the global nature of memorial museums, and because they are “exemplary in their particular national and regional contexts, as prominent, state-sponsored institutions.”

Rather than simply remember and honor the past, memorial museums built in the 21st century emphasize learning from that past in order to create a better future. “Memorial museums emerged in response to the violence and atrocities of the twentieth century and are intended to translate the suffering of the past into ethical commitments to creating a better future through education and commemoration,” Sodaro writes. But that goal may not always be possible given “how deeply political memory and history are,” she told SUM.

Part “commemorative form,” part “wildly popular tourist attraction,” these museums hold a curious place between memory and history, and as such require further study. “I think it’s important for us to understand why they are created and what purposes they are intended to serve,” Sodaro told SUM. “However, I hope that readers will also come away with a dose of skepticism about both our fascination with past violence and our assumption that learning the lessons of the past will ensure a better future.”

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Exhibiting Atrocity
Rutgers University Press, 2018

Work By
Amy Sodaro (Associate Professor of Sociology) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Borough of Manhattan Community College

Bonus Content
“Prosthetic trauma and politics in the National September 11 Memorial Museum” (Memory Studies)

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