“I will start a group to read books about genocide.”
“I will research when I get home tonight.”
“I will vote for candidates who speak out about genocide.”
“I will show that just because I am a child does not mean that I cannot help. I will always care for the ones I do not know.”
“I will make a video on YouTube to discourage people from unnecessary cruelty.”
These pledges flash against a prominent wall in a new installation at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum dedicated to “Taking Action.” Written, scribbled, or typed in a variety of languages, the words are responses to the question the installation asks visitors to consider:
What will you do to meet the challenge of genocide?
It’s a poignant question to consider, especially after visiting the museum’s extensive permanent exhibit on the Holocaust. From the permanent exhibit, museum visitors see a white wall emblazoned with this phrase in large red letters: “From Memory…to ACTION.”
The installation, titled “From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide,” begins where the permanent exhibit left off: in the wake of the Holocaust— when the idea of an “international community” had been completely shattered, and the notion of a “responsibility to protect” had not yet been borne or realized in the midst of the horrors of the Holocaust. Visitors see photos of the Nuremberg trials and other efforts by the international community to grapple with the devastation of the Holocaust and work to move forward, to create a global community that would “never again” permit its people to commit such grievous crimes against each other.
But “never again” has not yet been realized; horrors reminiscent of the Holocaust were repeated in subsequent genocides in the latter half of the 20th century and up to the present day in Darfur, Sudan. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has chosen to take up the charge of urging its visitors to learn about the genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust and to consider their personal role in helping to prevent genocide in the future.
The installation guides visitors through the histories of two recent genocides (Rwanda and Bosnia) and the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The installation succeeds in hammering home the idea that genocide, crimes against humanity, and mass atrocities are still a tragic reality of our world today. The detailed histories of each genocide show that “genocide does not occur in a vacuum”—there are warning signs and responses that governments, the international community, and everyday people must be able to recognize in order to take action before the crisis starts in order to prevent genocide and mass atrocities.
“Genocide isn’t always going to look like what you just saw in the permanent exhibit,” said the installation’s curator Bridget Conley-Zilkic. The goal of the installation is to familiarize the public with the concept of genocide and work to create an active community of people who are willing and know how to respond, she explained. “We want to see the response to genocide become smarter and better coordinated,” Conley-Zilkic said.
The installation is very interactive, with a “touch table” that encourages visitors to engage in reading the accounts of anti-genocide activists who have worked or continue to work to stop genocide. Each visitor to the installation receives a personalized card that allows them to select photos and bookmark stories that they want to read more about on the installation’s companion website.
The purpose of such interactive elements of a museum installation is clear: each person— here in the United States and all over the world—has a personal responsibility to consider how he or she can take action to prevent future atrocities, future genocides, and future crimes against humanity. A crime against humanity is a crime against everyone.
The “From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide” installation is an important educational tool, but a visit to this installation is only the first step. The next step is to make good on those pledges, take action, and become a part of the permanent anti-genocide constituency in the U.S. and around the world. (Visit the “Take Action” page of our website for suggestions and ideas.)
We hope that you will visit this installation in Washington and online, and join us in taking action in a variety of ways to prevent future Bosnias, Rwandas, and Darfurs.
Photo: The burning of Um Ziefa in Darfur, Sudan. December 12, 2004. By Brian Steidle, displayed in the photo collection "In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Enough" on the installation’s companion website.