Museums as Facilitators of Change

Today this popped up in my Facebook feed. Written by Bethany Hawkins from the American Association for State and Local History, it discusses a museum experience in Rwanda learning about the 1994 genocide.

It reminded me a lot of the work I do everyday in teaching people about the experiences of the First World War and my visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia in 2012. Bethany says

“Most people will never pick up a 300-page history book to read about the story of the over one million people killed in the Rwandan genocide and if they did, they would probably not feel a personal connection.” 

This was exactly my experience in Cambodia.

I have both studied and taught the Vietnam War and its flow on effects into Cambodia and Laos. I have a keen interest in social and personal history and have read much about the impact of the Khmer Rouge on everyday society, people and families. Yet the events of the 1970s were only truly understandable once I visited the Killing Fields in 2012 and saw victim’s clothes intertwined in the roots of the trees, pieces of broken bones jutting out of the dirt, and the tower housing hundreds of visible skulls.

Whilst museums can not truly replicate the experiences of war or genocide, nor should they want to, they can be valuable tools in enhancing empathy for victims and sufferers. Bethany’s friend’s experience in Rwanda itself is only the beginning of the role museums can play in increasing awareness and understanding, and fighting ignorance. Exhibitions, like the one in Rwanda, can be effective not only in their native country but around the world. For example, Australia, as a nation, has a very negative attitude toward immigration and refugees, many of which come from war torn countries. If museums are able to complement political fear mongering, stereotyping and brief combat based news broadcasts with narratives and experiences of everyday people, it can go a long way towards developing an empathetic, understanding and informed global community.


This article is also relevant


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