While in NYC this week, I reflected on the role of art, cultural, and museums to bear witness to tragic events. I was there for Remembrance Day / Veteran’s Day and this timing reinforced how through learning about, understanding, reflecting on a terrible event that we honour the victims and ideally avoid repeating history. Doing so in a public way, through physical presence at a shared social event, makes the act take on deeper meaning through literally taking a stance that something bad happened and that you bear witness to the fact that it did. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor and author of the book, Night, said “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” He also said “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” I feel that this message is why we need to show up, listen, and participate to show that we are not indifferent.
How do we bear witness? My trip to NYC showed 3 ways:
Through Art – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This classy museum was rated #1 museum in the world by Trip Advisor. See the full ranking here. It includes art through the ages, from ancient Rome to modern day, but the tiny exhibit that really grabbed me was about art created during WWI. Simple sketches, drawings, and lithographs conveyed such emotion. Their small size and modest presentation drew me in that much more. I could imagine some of the sketches being drawn in journals at the front. This immediacy made them that much more affecting. The act of creating art is one way to bear witness – and to view and honour that art is another.
Through Culture – Come From Away
This Canadian musical tells the story of the people affected on 9/11 when 38 planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. For 5 days, the town’s population doubled and people from around the world were jammed together in a time of crisis. The show made me proud to be Canadian – it is poignant, hilarious, and wise – and delivers a timely message of tolerance and hope that we need as much today as 16 years ago. This storytelling approach united 1,000 audience members into a emotional act of remembrance – not just of a tragic event, but how people overcame that event together.
Through Museums – 9/11 Memorial Museum
Built on the site of the twin towers, this museum tells the still very recent story of 9/11. Visiting with my daughter, who was less than 2 years old when it happened, made it that much more powerful to see it through her eyes now that she’s 18, since those of us who lived through it as adults have some images already burned into our memories. I was living in the US, in North Carolina, at the time – and the attack felt close to home as many neighbors had family members that were directly affected. It was different to see a museum about an event I had lived through, compared to the equally poignant WWI exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London that I saw 1.5 years ago. It was striking to see familiar modern objects such as credit cards and metro passes within an exhibit case, when I am more used to seeing vintage objects as artefacts. The exhibits combine giant artefacts (bent structural columns, pieces of fuselage, a crushed firetruck) and small ones (memos that drifted down from the towers, shoes, wallets), with disturbing video and personal audio testimony from the day. It is a museum visit that will stay with me, and I’m sure I’ll be back one day. Read the NY Times review.
By spending my vacation with these acts of remembrance, I was reminded of the power art, culture, and museums to show us the way. At the MuseumNext conference that NGX attended in Portland in October, the theme was ‘Museums are not neutral’. Within the current political climate, it is an important reminder of the power of art, cultural, and museums to understand their influence. My final quote from Elie Wiesel “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Beyond being active citizens in our personal lives, NGXers have all chosen to be part of a company that has deliberately pursued work within the cultural industry. We are driven by our commitment to tell important stories, to bring history to life, and to be leaders in museums. By doing so, we have chosen to use our careers to bear witness to the stories of others – and in that, to be part of making a difference, and to not be indifferent.