In the world of memorial museums, the approach to show and tell can take very different forms — with significant consequences.

Horizontal Rule with Colgate C

Many of the objects displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, a cavernous underground space set within the foundations of the former World Trade Center, are exactly the sorts of things one might expect to find. There are photographs of the catastrophe as it occurred, of people clutching their faces in disbelief as they watched the towers fall, and portraits of the many victims. There are relics of the rescue teams who charged into the wreckage — a battered helmet, a crumpled fire truck, a dust-covered badge — as well as pieces of the skyscrapers themselves, warped and mangled by heat.

But inside one tall, glowing case, a different kind of artifact confronts the visitor: a pale, sand-colored brick taken from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.

In combination with other displays illustrating the manhunt for bin Laden, “it’s suggestive of closure and justice — that the victims who died at that site have been avenged,” said Alexander Karn, associate professor of history and director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, whose recent research concerns memorials and the murky politics of remembrance.

Karn is an expert at decoding the latent narratives, metaphors, and emotional stimuli embedded within institutions dedicated to conflict, identifying what stories they tell and how. It’s hardly an idle pursuit; these sites, Karn argues, directly shape how atrocities endure in the collective consciousness. Depending on their content and presentation — on what they emphasize and what they ignore — memorials and museums can contribute “either to protracted violence or conflict abatement.” These sites alone may not be able to stop a genocide or act of terrorism, but they do “play a crucial role in how rival groups see one another and how responsibility for past violence is apportioned.”

In his chapter for the forthcoming collection Historical Dialogue and the Prevention of Mass Atrocities (Routledge, 2020), Karn conducts a gimlet-eyed analysis of four case studies: the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the District Six Museum in South Africa, the War Liberation Museum in Bangladesh, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. While some of these institutions encourage the kinds of productive historical dialogue that Karn believes can help former enemies, survivors, and future generations move toward peace, others fuel — or do little to temper — ongoing hostility. “Some of them, I think, are deploying the past to legitimize and encourage dangerous political programs,” he says. “And some of them, I think, hold this potential to open a space for mediation or reconciliation and justice.”

Karn was trained as a historian, but his research focuses on how past events are treated in contemporary societies. A seasoned veteran of the field whose previous work has concerned Holocaust restitution programs and official governmental apologies, Karn nonetheless found that probing memorials is a particularly delicate business. He is quick to emphasize that the atrocities they commemorate were horrific and that we need not feel solidarity with the perpetrators. We should, however, be wary of exhibitions that present conflicts without historical context. The 9/11 Memorial Museum, for instance, claims to offer a comprehensive history of those events, but it fails to address the motivations of the attackers or the ideological origins of their movement. It’s as though the mass slaughter came out of nowhere and, according to Karn, the museum seems “designed to deepen an appetite for revenge directed at an ambiguous, amorphous enemy.”

Using the German historian Stefan Berger’s concepts of “antagonistic memory” and “agnostic memory,” Karn demonstrates how certain spaces foster “us versus them” narratives while others encourage visitors to consider atrocities with a regard for all sides. “Agnostic memory does not require forgiveness or reconciliation,” he writes. It does, however, require a historically informed analysis of how a group of relatively ordinary people became mass murderers.

For the 9/11 Memorial Museum to take this more objective approach, it would have to be off-site, he says. It’s impossible, on what has become hallowed ground for those who mourn the dead, to do anything other than emphasize the tragedy of the disaster and to praise the bravery of its heroes. “If you want to do education, I don’t think it can cohabitate with victim commemoration,” says Karn.

The District Six Museum in Cape Town, he says, is a very different sort of institution. It does not commemorate a single, calamitous event, but the injustice of the entire apartheid era as manifested in one specific neighborhood: Nonwhite residents of the historically multicultural area were evicted to make way for new developments in the 1970s. A map of former streets and buildings spans the floor of the museum, annotated by original inhabitants who have been invited to indicate where their homes and businesses once stood. The museum has actively collected oral history (testimony that has proved essential in property restitution cases) and involved visitors in framing the legacy of the neighborhood. This engagement, Karn writes, allows people to “construct historical knowledge for themselves” and allows for multiple understandings of the past, instead of handing down one fixed, authoritative narrative.

It’s not always easy — sometimes participants’ recollections have clashed — but “the museum has shown a great deal of patience and trust for everyday people to work these things out,” says Karn. “Whatever knowledge the museum houses is the product of a community discussion.” And that knowledge includes the fact that South Africa did not become a fair and just nation overnight, with the end of apartheid. The museum does not flinch from highlighting enduring inequality, despite the new government’s frantic efforts to move on. “I think that the District Six Museum is trying to slow things down and not hand over authority to the neoliberal regime — the one that would wrap itself in the new flag without giving victims of apartheid the chance to tell their story,” he says.

According to Karn, it is essential for all of these museums to begin to analyze their long-term effects on viewers. So many institutions take emotional reactions as the measure of their success without analyzing what attitudes and actions those experiences foster. “Memorial museums are so pleased when they can point to evidence of their visitors having an emotionally powerful experience, but there’s been relatively little done to see what kinds of political outcomes those experiences engender,” he says.

Follow-up interviews with visitors months and even years later would help to clarify the messages people take with them into the world. Sustaining such long-term research would be daunting for any institution, but Karn believes that curators and staff are increasingly recognizing its value. “People are moving to a place where they’re pursuing these kinds of projects,” he says — ensuring that these memorial sites foster the kinds of dialogue necessary for reconciliation and productive remembrance.