Museums: Forming the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Institutions reflect the biases and longings of a culture

by Jacob Sims

The headline banner reads: “Between 1960 and 1962 the CIA spent millions persuading [Cuban] parents to send their children to the States where they were placed in reformatories and forced to live with strangers.”

The exhibit in Havana’s Museo de la Revolucion, is dedicated to Operación Pedro Pan, the name given to the mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the US immediately following the overthrow of the Batista regime by Fidel Castro et al in 1959.

Conversely, in the National History Museum in Washington, DC, a small plaque reads, “The people of the USA opened their doors to Cuban children in crisis, offering the hope of freedom, education and adoption by an American family.”

These are two takes on the same pivotal moment in history. Whereas the implications are enormously different, the facts don’t change and the difference between what happened can be boiled down to a matter of perspective. While there is an actual set of events that took place, the viewpoint we have on such polarizing moments (and life in general) is largely determined for us by place of birth and the narrative fed to us by virtue of that birthright.

The museum in Havana, where the Cuban government’s version of the Revolution of 1959 is exhibited, is fascinating, but beyond the mere history conveyed, the narrative arc here is incredibly thought-provoking. For an American  raised on the smooth, stylish propaganda of slick mass marketing and the subtle, implicit biases typical of our culture , the overt propaganda proffered by the Cuban government can come as a bit of a shock—particularly jarring when Americans get cast as the bad guys.

There are myriad examples of this theme playing out in the Museo de la Revolucion and around Cuba, but I find the case of Operación Pedro Pan particularly compelling. The opposing sides paint a fascinating but disturbing picture of the power of narrative in shaping how we view events.

To me, the opposing sides serve as gripping examples of the ability of narrative to shape a nation and its soul. These and the powerful feelings and associations they create account for so much of the “truth” people claim to believe. They form our ideologies, our very identities.

Over the course of my work and travels, I’ve had the privilege to visit museums in nearly 50 countries and am always struck by what I can learn about the perspectives, biases, peculiarities and longings of the host culture as represented in the narratives retold in the museums: exotic artifacts extracted from around the world in the British Museum; soaring warplanes, missiles and space shuttles in the National Air and Space Museum in the US; pictures and stories of victims in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga; various Holocaust museums, such as the Kigali Genocide Memorial—each tells a small piece of the story that formed a nation, bonded a people together or forged a common identity.

Museums inspire us via rare, explicit, physical encounters with history. In so doing, each tells a story about that history. And stories always come with their own unique perspective.

This isn’t all bad. Having a particular view of history is often helpful, particularly when repeating that history would be tragic.

Take for example the renowned Kigali Genocide Memorial, which serves as a tribute to the roughly 800,000 Tutsis murdered in Rwanda in 1994. This beautiful museum is one of the top tourist destinations in the country, received funding from USAID and the United Nations and has been touted as a groundbreaking step towards reconciliation by countless political and cultural leaders.

Kigali Genocide Memorial presents a theme of international importance: genocide awareness and prevention. As such, it was consciously designed to engage and challenge a wide-ranging base of international visitors grappling with aching questions. What could have been done? How might this be prevented from happening again?

Moreover, the memorial serves as the centerpiece for Rwanda’s Education for Sustainable Peace program—which is widely credited with the peace and stability the country has enjoyed over the last 25 years.

A major part of this curriculum and the museum’s exhibits themselves serve as a retelling of the events preceding, during and following the genocide from the explicit perspective of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF—the country’s long-ruling authoritarian regime). The historical perspective is at times openly biased in favor of the RPF party line and occasionally counter to viewpoints accepted by international observers.

While perhaps distasteful from a western democratic perspective, the power of this narrative arc (albeit a forced one) to strengthen national identity and maintain the peace is undeniable.

Colombia’s Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica  takes a different tack as it chronicles the multi-decade, multi-faceted conflict there. Since 1964, the conflict has claimed over 220,000 lives and displaced upwards of 5 million people.

Recognizing the multitude of diverse narratives held by the Colombian people about the conflict, Centro Memoria seeks the restoration of “lost memory” as a vehicle for reconciliation. As such, it pointedly refuses to take a political stance regarding the conflict and rather mourns broadly the losses on all sides while seeking a more personal approach to narrative formation.

Former President Juan Manuel Santos, whose administration was responsible for the creation of Centro Memoria, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to Colombia. His insistence on including all sides of the story, however, (going so far as to embrace the rebel FARC as a legitimate political party after years of guerilla war) were not broadly popular. Without a concrete narrative on who is right and wrong, people have a difficult time reconciling a torn past. Earlier this summer, President Santos left office as the least popular president in Colombian history.

Narrative arcs like the ones on display in our museums don’t have to be explicit or even intentionally curated to be resonant in their host societies. It would be hard to claim the Smithsonian or the British Museum engage in “propaganda” per se. These museums are renowned as research institutions, which strive to preserve and protect history for future generations.

The very nature of that history, however—the aspects of the past that were the most important determinants of these nations’ present realities—are narrative-forming in their own rights.

Take the National Air and Space Museum, the world’s third most visited museum. This temple of western technology has awed and inspired American children (myself included) at the soaring heights of American ingenuity and greatness since 1946. And why shouldn’t it?

It was American dominance in the air which turned the tide of history in World War II, both on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts. The planes are there as hanging proof of American bravery and valor in combat.

And that last global war finally was ended when an American plane dropped the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Enola Gay is a principle exhibition at the Air and Space Museum and serves as an eerie memorial to those essential American tenets of technological superiority and ruthless utilitarianism.

Later, it was NASA’s Apollo program and a superior nuclear arsenal that handed the United States early symbolic victories over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The germ-infested moon rock touched by nearly all 7 million-plus annual visitors is the first sight encountered upon entering the museum. Towering intercontinental ballistic missiles are the second. How can an American enter and not feel just a tiny bit of exceptionalism creep up?

But of course, the Air and Space Museum is not unique. In the British Museum, the tourist encounters remnants of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Countless glass-cased relics lie extracted from an expansive imperial domain that once spanned 24 percent of the earth’s landmass. Such physical reminders of a less-restrained Britain serve as a point of both understated national pride and subtle embarrassment for citizens of today’s much smaller country.

The Louvre, the Met, Tate Modern and other prominent American and Western European art museums tell their own stories. Visitors see the power of humanism, enlightenment thought, post-modernism, and democracy reflected in canvas, clay, oil, and pastel. In the midst of such a burst of creativity emanating from one’s own culture, how can people from these countries not view their culture as more beautiful, morally superior, or worthy of dissemination the world over?

Each story, if effectively told, represents the longings of a people, the biases and blind spots of a culture. Regardless of which story we claim, or how many we ingest along the road, our own perspective is colored by the histories we encounter, inherit.

So, what does this mean for us? What can global travelers do with this knowledge that everything we “know” is shaped by narrative, that our casual perspectives and most deeply held convictions are certainly biased and flawed by the prejudices of our government, society, travels, and/or personal interests?

For me, this troubling fact of life reinforces the importance of empathy. To see, truly understand, and genuinely empathize with the other side of a story is to begin to understand the complex nature of truth and reality in the midst of a fragmented world.

But the call here is not to reject our stories, histories, particularities, or even our museums. As storytelling, communal creatures, we find meaning and identity in our past—in our specific, unique histories. When you take that away, we are cut adrift.

Rather, a posture of empathy is one of courageous humility. The moment we are able to admit that our own views, our own histories, inherently lack universality and are inherently flawed, may just be the moment we find our stories messily, intricately, beautifully intertwining with another.


Jacob Sims

Jacob Sims leads a team of inspiring, talented international development professionals while he travels, writes and researches his way through Latin America. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded an education and social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a dual masters of science in International Development and Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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