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Torture Museums Exhibiting Historical, Cultural Cruelty

Torture Museums Exhibiting Historical, Cultural Cruelty
© Photograph by Jacob Peterson

In Germany, torture instruments have been displayed in regional history museums over the last two centuries, because they have been understood to be a part of regional history and representing past local traditions. They are particularly common in museums in counties where the witch-hunting period was more manifested. From the 1980s, however, some museums were created throughout Europe with the exclusive purpose of telling the history of penal systems and the use of torture during the Middle Ages. In the same period, the abuses perpetrated by the military dictatorship in Latin America gained repercussion worldwide and became the focus of a rising transnational activism whose main voice was Amnesty International.

The decision to build exhibitions solely dedicated to medieval justice is related not only to the importance the theme of torture gained at the time but also speaks about the curiosity the theme raised and continues to raise. Among the elements that drew and still draw attention to this type of exhibitions are: the eroticization and fetishizing1 associated with the theme, the curiosity of imagining the body in pain, interest in learning how practices of justice have changed over time, and interest in observing and experiencing reminiscences of a period seen as particularly violent and cruel. The Middle Ages is usually portrayed in movies and fiction literature as an age of oppression, injustice and above all little regard to the human life. The now widely discredited expression “Dark Ages” was for a long time employed to point out the brutality and backwardness that supposedly marked the period. Thus torture museums may become involved in broader processes of turning the Middle Ages and its punitive traditions into a spectacle.

Like any other social practice connected to the activity of educating and remembering, museums are the outcome of struggles for representing the past as well as the result of an interpretation of the present. In this sense, the production of exhibitions and its artefacts should be critically interrogated is a is power relations in the field of cultural production as well as to how they reproduce broader structures of hegemony. Museums are both products as well as agents of particular historical moments, and the power imbalances that define which knowledges matter and which representations are considered truer than others. Like other products in the field of preserving the past, museums and their exhibitions build on and reproduce claims to identities, and in particular to a national identity. Therefore, they also continuously engage notions of self and other, as well as nationalism and cultural difference. This last point is a particularly sensitive issue when the exhibitions deal with contentious heritage, such as a past considered extremely violent.

There are multiple dimensions of colonialism related to the theme of torture, especially when it is seen as resulting from the innate cruelty of the other. First, the discussion on the abolition of torture in Europe that occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries portrays this process as a change in these societies towards a more rational and humanist mentality. The abolition of torture functions in this narrative as a hallmark in the establishment of a higher level of humanity achieved by a collectivity. Second, the international activism against it sometimes frames the campaigns in terms of a civilizing mission while ignoring local conflicts and efforts to solve torture problems.

Museums exhibiting torture and punishment in Medieval Germany not only follow the common sense approach of the period but also seek to draw attention to remnants of the medieval practices in the contemporary global south. On the one hand, bringing together two very distinct phenomena may speak for the museums’ anxieties of stating the continued relevance of this problem and through this enhance the exhibition’s contemporary repercussions. On the other hand, searching for the roots of current torture in the Middle Ages risks covering up the fact that this phenomenon has never abandoned humankind, as well as silencing the power relations involved in its use. Thus the nexus of past and present raises several questions. Why show the current official use of torture in the global south if the exhibition’s theme is medieval Europe? Which identities are claimed and reproduced in this encounter? What identifications enable two different kinds of otherness (Medieval Europe and Latin America) to be mirrored against each other in these exhibitions?

Museums were first invented during the nineteenth-century as part of broader social changes in Europe, which, among other things, impacted the predominant views about the relation between culture and a community’s public life. Following an exhibitionary practice, museums were seen as tools to bring culture to the whole population as well as spaces that should help the task of raising better-informed and active citizens. Artwork, objects supposed to record the ways of other times and other peoples, and objects aimed at reproducing a whole field of knowledge were arranged in exhibitions that were intended to establish new bonds between a community and its shared culture. Among the educational tasks assigned to these institutions, one is of particular interest: preserving community history and cultural legacy. Keeping memory and cultural heritage alive in museums help communities to learn and record who they are and who they are not. The museums’ role as cultural remits in charge of preserving and creating public displays leads them to play an active role in the maintenance of heritage. They provide sources of symbolism, national pride and narratives of belonging to a people.

In broad strokes exhibitions are the outcome of how artefacts are displayed and connected to sources of knowledge, being thus shaped by predominant worldviews and the silences that accompany them. Museums may reproduce the current regime of knowledge through its choices on what is of public interest, which artefacts matters and how they are going to be displayed. And, most importantly, by selecting some narratives and knowledge instead of others. As Sharon MacDonald puts it “any museum or exhibition is, in effect, a statement of position. It is a theory: a suggested way of seeing the world”.

Moreover, museums maintain an authoritative and legitimizing status within the field of knowledge production and preservation. The combination of this status and their particular characteristics of granting materiality to their discursive and non-discursive messages provide museums with a special role as key cultural loci of our times. They are sites where such discourses are not only embodied, but also sensed. As Urry points out, to visit an exhibition is not only to witness a kind of artifactual history it is also a way of taking part in it by experiencing it, “to reminisce is collectively to effect a performance”. There is no history conveyed without the performance of heritage. Kershaw (2001) states that the performativity of reminiscence is not a passive process, but one that actively involves the audience. Far from being a mere relation of production and consumption of culture, this interaction involves, among other things, the curators’ expectations about the lessons that are expected to be learnt from the exhibitions and how the audience interacts with them.

1.
The images representing the martyrdom of women during the witch-hunting period tend to sexualize the body of the young women shown in both pictures and mannequins.
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