Our history may be bloody and awful, but the sites of conscience are offering education, in an effort to ensure it doesn’t repeat.
James Cameron was sixteen years old on that fateful day in August 1930. A week or so before, he had been picked up together with two of his friends, who were accused of robbing and murdering somebody.
Now, a crowd of some ten thousand people were pushing up against the prison in Marion, Indiana, in the south of the USA. When they finally managed to get in, they set their sights on Thomas Shipp, who was beaten within an inch of his life and then hanged on the bars of his jail.
Next was Abram Smith, who was attacked so violently that he was probably already dead when the mob strung him up on a tree in the square in front of the courthouse. Just to make it ‘look good’ they cut down Shipp and hung him next to his friend. Then they turned to James Cameron. They bashed him too and put a noose around his neck, ready to string him up between Shipp and Smith.
But the minute Cameron silently made peace with his maker, a woman’s voice ran out, pleading to let him go. Soon, she was accompanied by the impressive physical presence of a local footie hero, who also yelled out that Cameron was innocent. He took the boy under his wing, removed the noose and carried him to safety. As far as we know, it was the only time somebody survived a lynching.
After his remarkable escape, James Cameron dedicated the rest of his life to the Civil Rights Movement. That activism found a tangible shape in 1984, when he founded America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, a place where the story of slavery, oppression and African-American militancy is told.
The ABHM is one of the 275 museums, in 65 countries, that makes up the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
It was founded in 1999, when nine museums from four continents came together at the initiative of American historian Ruth Abram, to see if it would be possible to ‘remember the past while sparking action on human rights in the present’.
Abram had been the creator of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, a place that focuses on the history of migration to the US. She also was the prime mover behind Behold! New Lebanon, America’s first living museum of contemporary rural life.
What Abram was noticing, was that a lot of the stories she dealt with in those museums were similar: there had been a past of repression and suffering that was slowly disappearing from the national narrative. There was, she thought, a need to remember which was competing with an equally strong pressure to forget.
History can be a dangerous animal: if you let it speak, it has a tendency to undermine the tales of glory most countries tell about themselves
History can be a dangerous animal: if you let it speak, it has a tendency to undermine the tales of glory most countries tell about themselves. Often, the nasty things get erased, the cracks plastered over, and during that process, people are silenced. Especially people who have been at the receiving end of injustice and discrimination.
Since 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has been actively trying to turn places of memory into places of action. In an Apartheid-era prison in South Africa, survivors of the regime are telling children, the next generation, what they experienced and how they fought to imagine a better, more just nation.
Similar things are going on in the Liberation war museum in Bangladesh, a museum that remembers the people who disappeared during the dictatorships in Argentina, the Gulag museum in Russia and the site of a concentration camp in Poland. In all those places, connections are made between then and now and everything is done to make sure that the struggles of the past are translated into creative projects that bring people together. Mothers on different sides of the civil war in Sri Lanka are brought together to talk and understand how similar they are. Young people from around the US are using the history of the Civil Rights Movement to improve their educational opportunities.
Protestant and Catholic police officers from Northern Ireland are telling each other their stories and a travelling exhibition in Sierra Leone tells children about the civil war. This way, museums can function as sites of reconciliation and understanding and build togetherness instead of separation.
In Australia, the most important Site of Conscience we’ve got is the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct.
Built in 1821 by Governor Macquarie and his convict-architect Francis Greenway, it was intended to be a safe haven for convict women. Instead, it was turned into an institution that locked up and abused women and girls until 1983. Twenty thousand girls were imprisoned here and one in ten Australians are descendants of a woman who was forced to call this place home for a while.
For decades after the place closed, successive governments have been trying to silence the voices and tear down the buildings, but that was halted when some of its old inhabitants took charge in 2003. They called themselves the Parragirls and over the last fifteen years, they have used art and story to regain their voice and eventually earn the keys to the castle.
Because that is the thing with the past: if you don’t know about it, you will repeat it. Again and again and again.
Now there is even a book about the Parragirls Memory Project (Parragirls, by Lily Hibberd and Bonney Djuric) and the place itself is a paragon of what a Site of Conscience is supposed to be: a space where the truth is told by people who lived it, to people who didn’t but want to prevent it from happening again.
Parramatta seamlessly fits the other museums and organisations the Coalition counts as its members. In Senegal, a red house on the Atlantic Ocean has been rebuilt with assistance of a Coalition grant. It used to be the place where the transatlantic slave trade started and was, like the Female Factory, slowly falling apart when activists intervened. Now it is ready to tell its stories again.
Elsewhere, there is a project that is digitally mapping prisons, checkpoints and former clandestine sites of torture in the Middle East and North Africa, to make sure that governments can’t say that injustice never happened. There is a Syrian oral history project, girl ambassadors for human rights and at a conference in Liberia victims and perpetrators of atrocities in fifteen countries came together to talk about truth and reconciliation.
Because that is the thing with the past: if you don’t know about it, you will repeat it. Again and again and again. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience tries to make sure that doesn’t happen.