Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Museums and Youth - the failure to stop the war

Can museums really achieve what they are not designed to do, namely to provide visitors with a critical insight into history, in order to learn how to prevent in future war? That question is most pertinent after the failure to prevent most recently the war in Iraq and on the eve of another looming question of war connected with Iran.

The day of museums on May 18th 2006 was dedictated to the youth. In contemplating what museums could do for that day, one suggestion was that museums should look for a way out of repeated failures. For too often it is claimed that history proves only war was unavoidable, necessary and in the name of the nation even glorious. What are museums doing on this special day dedicated to the ‘youth’?

Let us start with a good source of information as to what museums are going to do on this particular day since this year in 2006 the theme is on ‚youth and museum’.

The source is H-MUSEUM or H-Net Network for Museums and Museum Studies


As a network, it provides anyone, who has entered the recipient list, with information as to what is happening in the museum sector. It informs as to what may be of relevance to museums on such a day. There are listed ongoing research projects and studies about the impact of museums on learning experiences made by youth.

Most relevant to the topic ‘youth and museum’ is, among other, one of such announcements received via H-Museum from Sabine Moller at the University of Oldenburg. It is about a research seminar on the question of museums and their visitors, in particular the youth taking place at the University of Oldenburg, Institute for History, Department Education of History. It has started already in April and shall continue until the end of May. On 26.04.2006 Wolfgang Meseth from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) gave a talk about how youth can come to an understanding of the political and moral dimensions of the Holocaust.

For further information about the research project dealing with political-moral paradoxes when educating youth about history in informal learning situations see http://www.uni-frankfurt.de/fb/fb04/personen/meseth.html

03.05.2006 - Berit Pleitner (Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg) discussed experiences made by youth when visiting museums under the heading: "There one can learn a great deal!"

See http://www.staff.uni-oldenburg.de/berit.pleitner/

Also on 31.05.2006 - Ceri Jones (University of Leicester, UK) talks about: "A backlash against years of politically correct, homogenised, multicultural history" with the aim to explore the possible impact of history upon youth.

For further information about the study on how teachers make use of museums and what impact it has on pupils go to: www.le.ac.uk/museumstudies/about/cerijones.htm

The research discussion is organized by Dr. Sabine Moller at the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg at the Institute for History: 26111 Oldenburg with

Tel.: 0441-798-2393

Fax: 0441-798-3021

e-mail: sabine.moller(at)uni-oldenburg.de

Notes for this year’s museum’s day:

Wolfgang Meseth calls this approach which includes visits to the museum to communicate something else than what can be taught at school an entry into an informal learning process. It puts, for example, “National Socialism-history between art and education“. He reflects this on hand of practical experiences made when visiting a memorial site. In doing so, he believes paradoxes of a political-moral education have to be dealt with.

However, if lessons of history are mediated outside any formal learning setting, then it becomes crucial not merely how the content is presented but within what context of understanding are values derived from history (some call it learning out of experiences) and then transmitted in particular to the youth. The historian Reinhart Koselleck taught this on hand of a course called ‘political iconography’ and meant examining differences in war memorials insofar as they do not glorify war deeds but are reflective as, for example, the grave for the unknown soldier in Munich.

The paradox can be made explicit insofar as values cannot be taught. Hence learning about the past to obtain certain values poses a challenge to educators. Museums seem to have here an advantage since children can wander in-between concrete artefacts while listening to the voice of Winston Churchill heard over the same type of radio people had when taking cover during the Blitzkrieg in London. This was the case at a special exhibition shown at the Imperial War Museum during 2005 under the theme ‘children of London during World War II’.

After 1945, in view of the promise ‘never again war’, terms such as ‘moral goodness’, ‘civil courage’, ‘free conscience’ and ‘human and ethical behaviour’ were uplifted especially during the Student movement and anti-Vietnam protest. It encouraged the spirit of those willing to resist war service even if they risked being jailed or punished even more severely, if they did not flee to Canada or Sweden. Many factors contributed towards that but as a political movement, it was still left unclear how such values can be taught, formally or informally speaking. While some think it needs conviction, others believe children need good examples and role models, if they are to grow up with a certain set of values and uphold them throughout their lives.

However, it seems that most of the time they adopt these models and ideals not when at school but during early childhood, that is at home and amongst friends with some key adults serving as key models when it comes to learning by imitating. Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer, attributed all of his knowledge about war crimes and hence that there can exist another viewpoint to his grandfather. Piaget, in his study about how children develop moral concepts, cites examples of children playing marbles on the pavement as if they grasp the rules and norms out of the air. Moral concepts can be made explicit on hand of rules and punishment e.g. a child looses a turn if it did not throw the marble in a proper way.

Moreover study findings by David Mantell (‘Family and Aggression’) show that only such youth which grew up in families respecting the fact that everyone is entitled to express their own opinions but also that one has to take the consequences when holding such and not another opinion would resist war services. On the contrary, those who volunteered for military service grew up in families which preached ‘law and order’ at home while never granted freedom of opinion to any of the children who committed consequently at an early age already actions of criminal nature. They tend to go to war since war legitimises these actions considered otherwise to be illegal and therefore would be punishable if they remained in a society at peace. That underlines the relativity of ethics especially when behaviour suitable to war (a way to fight the other as if an enemy) is sanctioned by the state and official ideology. America demonstrated moreover after 9/11 that a wave of patriotism with everyone feeling America had been attacked let a President take a nation of 300 Million to war despite the reasons given not at all truthful.

Thus it is not altogether clear what difference a visit to the museum would make especially if such great institutions like the Deutsche Museum in Munich, in reality a museum about the evolvement of technology, transmits more a fascination for the machine and omits as if by accident all the technology developed for and used in Second World War.

In other words, all these examples touch upon informal educational questions which museums have to face since they are places in-between visits with a lot of fun and seriousness provoked and needed once confronted by the history of the Holocaust as exhibited, for instance, in the Imperial War Museum in 2005. What impressions do videos of Hitler holding his mass rally speeches leave on youth filing past? Usually they do not go there alone but as part of their school excursion creating a context within a context. They know already amongst themselves who is more inclined to certain versions of history, who not. A seventeen year old observed in a discussion about war quite rightly that those with a Fascist and Racist attitude bring these values already from their families while those leaning more to the Left acquire these attitudes only once at university, hence an intellectual, theory-practice matter. The visit to the museum with the entire class and the teacher up front but often out of hearing range makes personal discovery and asking further questions sometimes less possible than when going to the exhibition alone or with only a good friend. More important would be a visit with some elderly person who is a living witness of those times documented at the museum. Apparently some time bridges are needed to make the passing on of insights and values possible. This then is more of a generation question.

Carol Becker, Dean of the Chicago Art Institute, said museums should be places of experiences to set off dreams in the wish to discover in future other lands. Nowadays the new museums with their order seem to make such discoveries more difficult. The free roaming about as if at home and an extension of the community is less the case than what the mix of multi media offers and edutainment gadgets can offer especially if everything has to be ‘fun’.

To enter, therefore, an exhibition organised around a certain historical theme and to come away from it with a degree of certainty in having learned something which might alter outlook on life, behaviour at home, discussions with friends and finally what career to plan for, such an impact is hard to establish. Usual studies of museums reduce that question to museums being attractive or not but what has been learned, or rather what value questions and dispositions have been touched upon, remains a matter of qualitative evaluation. Moreover it is hard to see young people learning from museums civil disobedience if these memory institutions continue to foster like the Imperial War Museum terms about war only in a patriotic, equally non critical sense. It seems most difficult for anything else being touched upon or evoked if everything is done to remember the glorious deeds while the question ‘why war’ remains as muted as ever in view of all those war machines on display.

Even children drawings made during a workshop at the Imperial War Museum and hung out for display during July 2005 when sixty years after the ending of Second World War was celebrated in London with a bomber flying (strangely enough on that Sunday after July 7th when the bombing of London’s underground system took place) over the city to drop symbolic flowers instead of bombs (as reminder of the Blitzkrieg of Hitler) depict only what they see around them: tanks, guns, types of bombs and other equipment, including the helmets soldiers wore at battle. There was made even a direct link between times then and how Londoners should react to the terrorist attack, namely with the same ‘defiance’ as demonstrated during Second World War. Such virtue and show of British character served equally the purpose to silence the question about the ongoing war in Iraq and did not seem to be bothered by the fact that a London composed now of many cultures and people all showing a marvellous attitude in affirming life in the city had nothing to do with a typical British trait.

Consequently the question arises what do all these experiences stand for when youth visit those memorial places including Auschwitz? Do they get a sense how important it is ‘never again war’ or ‘never again should people be left alone to stand on the ramp’ so that they are not left at the mercy of the perpetrators and die without witnesses? Of interest is that the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum did touch upon the crucial historical questions such as should the Allies have bombed the trains going to Auschwitz or why did Great Britain deny to Jews entry into the Palestine land. Indeed, such questions need to be answered especially when the President of Iran claims the Holocaust did not exist, but what does this say about a world most divided there where it hurts the most? Those divisions leading to the creation of new enemy pictures seem to be drawn most ferociously where the denial of the pains of others suffered due to all atrocities in the past and even now is the biggest divider!

Certainly a most crucial question discussed with Prof. Takuya Kaneda in Japan and coordinator of the International Kids Guernica movement is whether informal experiences have to be not merely outside schools but also museums before these questions of social justice can be answered through art questioning war rather than having war being glorified as part of national history. It would mean solving the paradox by turning to also an anti-museum position before such experiences can be made and clear messages such as ‘never again war’ delivered.

If taken consequentially a step further, it would mean any museum has to take the youth outside of own constraints in order to be able to question history in a way that stories are told in the most truthful manner and without the wish to bend the facts for the sake of the glory of the nation. Carol Becker did it by taking her students to Viet Nam where they visited My Lai – the village where American soldiers gunned down the entire population of that village. By stepping out it could give space to pose some crucial questions, amongst them one most significant, namely were all those sacrifices necessary with many young people dying a senseless death in a war which could have been prevented?

Of further interest is what the Greek-American artist Eleftheria Lialios writes from Chicago about the National Guard Amory of Illinois, USA since it is a recruitment centre: “nothing like getting people to join the national guard and go to Iraq when they have nothing to do with their lives and promise them an education and benefits which are then broken, not counting the fact that they could die.” If only museums could document the propaganda of war as ‘seductive reasoning’ by showing examples of before and after!

Indeed, how many went into First World War with huge enthusiasm as if a big adventure if only to come home completely shocked by the horrific battles they had experienced, Vimy Ridge at Verdun but an example of senseless fights over four meters advancement. To question this, Eleftheria Lialios created an artistic soldier as if no longer on the battle field but on a moon like landscape with a sign pointing into the direction as to where to find a ‘way out’.

To be sure: no way out can be found if among other institutions of society museums just reinforce the normal socialisation process. This is the case if they fail to show especially on such a day how easily youth can be enticed to do military service especially if it entails such vague promises as doing something great for your country.

To remember museums are linkages to knowledge about man and the world, including all these wonderful civilizations that existed before our times. It has been the norm of Western Civilization in looking back at Ancient Greece that progress towards democracy was made when no longer human sacrifices were made. Human sacrifices e.g. in the Maya cult was taken to be a sign of primitiveness. In looking back that struggle to respect human life and to conceive civilization as sanctuary of life was a motivation to learn from museums when at the cross roads of civilizations as claimed by the British Museum. Hence fore most and above all museums around the world should remind about the Youth of Ancient Greece as the vision of going beyond human sacrifice in order to attain adulthood. It would be important to return to that model and to see what contradictions were made back then as possible clue to how the greatest spirit of democracy was defeated then and there. For example, Sparta allowed only young men to enter the circle of the elders if they had killed a slave, a Helot, thus once a youth had done this deed it was impossible for them to accuse the elders of having killed another man. The same was the case with Socrates when he persuaded a young man not to accuse his father of having killed a slave in front of the Polis about to pass over Socrates a judgement of being guilty of having misled the youth. It may have been the intention of Plato to contrive his anti democratic logic in the way he reconstructed the dialogues of Socrates but in history the persuasion of another to do the same is called ‘conspiracy against truth’.

On this day, when museums open their doors to the youth, they should be reminding what the demand to be civilized really means, namely a freedom from any human sacrifice. This is all the more important insofar as President Bush claims all those who have died in Iraq, US soldiers and Iraqis alike, are a sacrifice worth while since on the way to democracy. If not rejected, it would mean also not seeing the destruction of the ancient site of Babylon where the US military camped without regard for the past.


Notes on museums and youth – Day of Museums May 18th

was first published by heritageradio


Category: Debates & Networking

By: Hatto Fischer, Athens



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