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Red Cross Museum grapples with how to present history

The Red Cross Museum in Geneva has been criticized by Turkish authorities

(Keystone Archive)

The Red Cross Museum in Geneva has been responding to criticism about how it describes the alleged genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. The controversy highlights the fine line museums must tread between truth and expediency.

The section of the museum which has aroused the most controversy is the "Wall of Time", which lists every conflict which has claimed over 10,000 lives in a year, and every natural disaster which has killed over 1,000 people.

The local press has been particularly incensed about the wall's references to the alleged genocide of Armenians by Turks during the Ottoman Empire. The entry on the wall reads merely: "1915, 1916 and 1917, Ottoman Empire: massacres in Armenia".

Other entries are similarly brief, but critics say there is no indication as to who was committing the massacres in Armenia and who were the victims.

The exhibit reveals what former curator, Jean-Pierre Gaume, describes "as a crisis of identity at the heart of the Red Cross Museum".

"The museum has to walk a tightrope between showing historical truth and respecting the Red Cross's traditional neutrality. It is a real challenge to balance these two demands," he told swissinfo.

Should the museum, for example, show the truth if it is likely to displease a government and put the lives of civilians or Red Cross delegates at risk?

Gaume, curator of the museum from 1982 until his departure in 1997, says bowing to the wishes of a government which refuses to accept historical facts can seriously compromise either historical reality or humanitarian action.

Reports have long circulated that the wording of the Turks' murder of Armenians was toned down in the wake of Turkish complaints to the ICRC, and suggestions from Ankara that it could limit Red Cross activities in Cyprus.

The claims are strongly denied by the museum's current director, Roger Mayou. "We have never changed a word on the Wall of Time. We never changed the word genocide to massacres and we are not going to change one word because of political or media pressure."

He points out that the wording was devised in the mid-1980s, when the world was still in the grip of the Cold War: "I can imagine our predecessors taking certain decisions that they might not take today.

"As everybody knows, Turkey is not very happy with the word massacres, but the word falls between what both sides would like to see, and that's perhaps why it was chosen," he told swissinfo.

Part of the problem is the nature of the Wall of Time, which presents visitors with a continuum of historical death and suffering, set in the context of the Red Cross movement.

The writing on the wall is done in a kind of serigraphy, and is difficult to remove. Consequently the wording has remained unchanged since the museum opened in 1988.

"The current staff did not choose these words," Mayou says. "We have to live with them and the problems they cause."

He adds that the wall itself presents the museum with a very real dilemma about what history is.

"The Wall of Time presents history as though it is definitive. There is a discrepancy between having history carved in stone for an eternity and the absolute necessity of taking a fresh look at historical events.

Mayou says that, if the exhibit were devised now, it would, like many of the other features in the museum, be achieved with computers, which could quickly reflect changes in historical wisdom. "We are not making history. We are relating history, and history is an evolving process."

Nevertheless he insists that "history needs a certain time delay" and for that reason, 10 years must elapse before the wall is updated. The Rwandan genocide will therefore appear only in 2004.

Unlike the Wall of Time, the museum is not constrained by time. It has already shown it is not afraid to use the word "genocide" in the context of Rwanda in its new permanent exhibition on the Red Cross's contemporary work.

It also intends to remodel the section on the Second World War to reflect recent historical studies, notably by the Geneva historian Jean-Claude Favez, about the Red Cross's less than glorious efforts to help the victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

"We have these new elements before us and we have to incorporate them into the museum and change areas which are no longer satisfying," Mayou says.

by Roy Probert


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