Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2015 Edition

As my long-time readers know, I tend to get a little introspective when Remembrance Day rolls around. I've shared stories from my family's past, my personal experiences, and try to tie these in with the work we do as museums. This time I'm stepping away from my family's story, because this past week was Holocaust Education Week. Here in Halifax, this has meant special speakers and events, one of which I attended at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. It commemorated the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht through song, video, and a first-hand account by author Sidney Zoltak.

When he was a teenager Sidney and his family escaped from the Warsaw ghetto just prior to the ghetto's "liquidation", ie when the people were all transported to concentration camps. While his father was careful to shield Sidney from the truth of what was happening, Sidney remembers being aware of rumours circulating that "something bad, something significant was going to happen soon." In the middle of the night, his father cut through the barbed wire fence and people ran for their lives while being shot at by Nazi guards. After hiding out in the forest, his family made their way to a rural area and ended up being hidden in a barn for 14 months by another family. After the war and his father's death, Sidney and his family came to Canada to join his mother's sister in Montreal. They maintained contact and sent care packages to the family that hid them, and eventually had the family added to the Righteous Among the Nations list.

That is obviously a very brief synopsis of what Sidney shared with us on Sunday afternoon. And it is impossible to convey the emotion with which he spoke, and the response and reaction of the audience. But what I want to do is really focus on his musings as he wrapped up his talk. He shared that when he meets with other survivors they ask each other what the memories will look like when they are gone. They are worried about the distortion of historical accounts, Holocaust deniers, Nazi sympathizers, and that no one will be present to provide a first-hand account when questions arise.

There's no way around it, we all know it to be true; there are fewer and fewer survivors and veterans every day. As Sidney put it, "we leave future generations an important legacy". I could not help but feel that he was issuing a call to action to heritage institutions. I talk a lot about the need to personalize our collections - that each item has a story to share and we need to be more proactive in capturing those stories. But here was a man with far more clout than I have, tearfully pleading with his audience to never forget, and to seek out these memories and important stories and ensure that they are documented for future generations.

As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Whether it is a Holocaust survivor's story or the life story of a local farmer who never left Nova Scotia, people's lives and experiences matter. We can learn a lot from those that came before us. They deserve our respect, especially as museums. Our mandate includes preserving our heritage right? This is literally our job. Again Sidney put it very poignantly that if we "don't do it now, tomorrow might be too late. Our stories are important historical facts." Truer words were never spoken.

We, the museum community must acknowledge this call to action and step up to the plate. We know that each story captured is another piece added to the puzzle that is our past. We know that we are ethically bound to be socially conscious institutions and that we have an active role to play in sharing life lessons with next generations. We know that sometimes our history is none too pretty, and that this can quickly and easily result in disbelief by our visitors and audiences. But we also know that sometimes we fail. Sometimes we shy away from telling the difficult stories in our history, we disregard teachable moments, and we don't take advantage of opportunities to capture personal, first-hand accounts. And frankly, if I had to explain to this wonderful gentleman why my museum had failed to capture and share these personal, difficult, and oh-so-important stories, I would be left feeling embarrassed and speechless.

The words honour, respect, responsibility and duty all immediately spring to mind. However you think of it, or whichever reasoning makes the most sense to you, let's all agree. As museum workers and as institutions that preserve societal memory, the least we can do is help those that are left to share their stories in the way they want, and in their own words.

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