A couple of days ago on Facebook, I posted this essay–The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction–about the new 9/11 museum (excuse me, National September 11 Memorial Museum) in New York, and it got me thinking.
First, the whole museum seems icky, doesn’t it? Just twelve years after the event. $24 admission–what, it’s like the MoMA now? And a gift shop, for God’s sake. I have no interest in going.
Yet…when I went to Rwanda, one of the “tourist” things I did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Which is also a museum.
(One of the more bizarre moments on that trip was telling our host we’d gone to the memorial, and we’d liked the museum. “Wait, did you go to the memorial, or the museum?” Because of course there’s not just one memorial, or one museum. Our conversation went around in circles, like a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell situation.)
Honestly, Peter and I were thinking we would blow it off–we’re not morbid tragedy tourists. Except the people we were visiting said it was good!
It was great. It was somber without being grossly emotional. It was very informative (Herero massacre–what?). It was well lit and professional, but with no multimedia fanciness. And it was free–though of course donations are encouraged. The “gift shop,” in a little wood hut, carried a few books about the genocide, and some crafts.
The whole thing opened in 2004, on the ten-year anniversary of the genocide. Too soon? Not if you want a genuine memorial for people who died, of course not. (Though I would be curious to know how it was discussed at the time.)
The key to the genocide memorial not seeming maudlin or exploitative or generally icky was that when we arrived, a guide greeted us and took us to one of the mass graves. He briefly explained the situation, and the efforts of the memorial center, then we stood for one minute of silence.
After that, we were free to walk around however we wanted, with our audio tour or without.
I don’t envy that guide his job, but I think this human connection made all the difference in how we saw the whole museum/memorial.
Because, honestly, tourists can suck. I’ve yawned or daydreamed at some very serious places, maybe in full view of people who had been affected by the given event. It’s easy to fall out of the moment, if you’re hungry or your traveling companion has raced ahead, or whatever.
But one real, live person, talking directly to you–that’s the key to helping you focus on the place, why it exists, and what you might get out of it.
There’s plenty to learn from Rwanda, but that’s one concrete, small thing, and I’m glad I saw their model. It makes me at least not hate the idea of the 9/11 museum.