Written by Roberta Caldas
Uncomfortable heritage can be defined by a past event of human rights violations that, although uncomfortable or shameful, is part of what shapes a group of people. The National Socialist persecution and systematic annihilation of different minorities is an example. The Khmer Rouge persecution of intellectuals and those against the regime is another.
The shaping of memory has been done for centuries. Statues, plaques and monuments to mark a ruler or the outcome of a battle have been used for a long time to tell the people what to remember and how to remember.
Since the Second World War, uncomfortable memories of atrocities started to be viewed as something to remember. The motto of “may we never forget so we may never repeat” (Adorno, 1971) came to use and monuments, memorial museums and memorials in situ started to occupy the urban landscape.
To interpret such uncomfortable events is a very delicate subject. It means shaping the collective memory of a society on events that are not easy to admit and are painful to remember. It is choosing to commemorate victims rather than remember tyrants and to focus on resistance rather than torture or persecution techniques.
Furthermore, uncomfortable heritage interpretation exists especially to connect the past with current events to make a better future. The main goal is reflection.
Some basic guidelines and examples for the interpretation of uncomfortable heritage
Through personal stories, the visitor has the chance to better connect and to identify himself to the broader subject. A good example is the story of Anne Frank, a regular 13-year-old girl that through her own experiences as a victim of Nazi persecution, tells us the horrors of that time bringing us closer to that reality.
Victims, perpetrators and silent players
The main goal of memorial sites should be to commemorate victims by touching visitors and bringing them together against human rights violations. The memorial museum aims to inform on context, history and perpetrators in a very objective perspective while touching and awakening visitors to the harm suffered by the victims.
The Museo Memoria y Tolerancia in Mexico City also brings to light the role of silence and abstinence of opinion in times of cruelty. After presenting uncomfortable heritage around the world from the last century and present times, it connects the visitor with the reality in Mexico, showing how prejudice and extremism can lead to terrible consequences. The Museo Memoria y Tolerancia is the most successful example of a museum about uncomfortable heritage connecting the past and the present I have encountered in my research.
New media, such as mobile applications and augmented reality, is a great way to connect the younger public to historical heritage sites. It takes interactivity and new technology to their phones. Mobile applications can also be used as a more inexpensive way to create an audio guide for museums and memorials or a self-guided audio and interactive tour for a thematic route or heritage trail of a city or area.
In July 2014, I took part on a project with the BTU Cottbus-Senftenberg to raise the public’s interest to the 1936 Olympic Village in Elstal, a town 30 minutes away from Berlin. The project consisted on a one-day event that would use new media as a awareness tool. We developed a conceptual video installation on the swimming pool that reminded visitors of the history behind that Olympic Village that served as Nazi propaganda and later as a military camp for the Soviets and that was open for interpretation. For specific information on buildings and history, we experimented with augmented reality. Visitors could direct their phones to any building at the site and would have access to information on different aspects of the Village through video, audio, text and images.
About the author - Roberta Caldas