Making an impression: more about museums and legal history

Last month’s post about museums and legal history cried out for a sequel, and not only because I launched the post at first in a rather unfinished state. Since that moment I have tightened some loose ends, and even better, I have added some institutions to my list in statu nascendi of museums for legal history. While working on it and by chance also at other moments it became clear that these museums suffer competition from commercial organizations which simply want to attract as much public as possible and to get money out of the appetite for sensational objects. A news item helped to get a better focus for this side of the subject.

Law and sensation

Any quiz master would rule the question “Which kind of law will attract attention most easily?” out of court, because the answer will come too readily. The additional questions “Specify a particular period” and “Can you mention at least one aspect?” go the same way. Criminal law, medieval law and torture are a kind of eternal golden braid. I bumped into this silly wisdom when I wanted to add a number of museums which show instruments of torture. In fact a number of more general museums concerning legal history, in particular old prisons, do show them also, but a select number of museums is devoted solely to these instruments of terror. It dawned upon me all of a sudden my own country does indeed have not four, but five museums for legal history. I had forgotten about the Torture Museum in Amsterdam. While searching for more museums devoted to this subject I ran into the Mittelalterliches Foltermuseum at Rüdesheim am Rhein, but also into the travelling exhibitions of the Museo della Tortura in San Gimignano.

Showing the history of torture is something else than showcasing the most hideous objects, and even presenting a selection of them on tour. In my March post I benefited from the use of the English Wikipedia to find more jail and prison museums, but the people’s online encyclopedia does not stop at that point. To the torture museums listed the English Wikipedia adds references to articles on a number of torture museums which do not rank in the same league. The Dungeons firm is a chain of tourist attractions at Amsterdam, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London and York with historical objects with more or less pertinence to criminal law from several periods, mainly aiming at children and their parents who are willing to have a ghastly experience or even a scary day! History is here a pretext for gloating over the terrors of the past with on the back of your mind the firm conviction that our times know better, and telling the kids it is only a museum with rewards afterwards for their perseverance.

At least one museum seems to bring together the best of two worlds. The Galleries of Justice Museum at Nottingham presents its fair share of tours with actors playing out stories of crime and punishment, but its educational department cooperates also with the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law for more serious forms of education. By all means I do not want to spoil the joy of a family going to a place with more or less grisly aspects, almost poking fun at terrors long tamed, but it is not as innocent as it once could have seemed.

Facing the history of human rights and violence

The very opposite of these attractions, however, too, are not completely museums presenting objects and stories in a detached and objective way. Human rights are the unifying theme at a surprisingly large number of museums. There are at least two worldwide federations of them, the Federation of International Human Rights Museums and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and IC MEMO, the ICOM committee for museums and memorials for the victims of public crimes, should be added to them. Political correctness can be a strong force at work in these institutions dedicated to document some of the greatest crimes that have been committed in recent history. How to choose a particular subject avoiding a too general approach? How to avoid choosing a subject which excludes too obviously other subjects that would merit a museum? How to avoid sterile musealisation, the false objectivity and alienation of objects and a story, and showing instead the often confusing realities in which very different people lived? These questions arise around the project for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but they apply of course elsewhere, too.

The sting is indeed in the adjective recent. Violation of the integrity of humans, grave disrespect to the rule of law, indiscriminate acts of violence still happen. Today four French organizations, among them Amnesty France, published a joint press statement expressing their satisfaction about the prohibition of a proposed auction of the collection of torture instruments collected by Fernand Meyssonier, a former executioner who had been active in Algeria between 1957 and 1962. The organizations held a plea to buy this collection for a national museum or similar institution. Meyssonnier executed nearly 200 people. ACAT France, a French Christian movement against torture and the death penalty, states flatly that in every second country of the world torture is used. In 2011 ACAT France published a grim report on torture in 23 countries called Un monde tortionnaire, a world of torture.

Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer published last year their study Soldaten : Protokolle vom Kämpfen, Töten und Sterben [Soldiers. Protocols of fighting, killing and dying] (Frankfurt am Main, 2011), already translated into Spanish, Finnish and Dutch, about the tapes of German soldiers imprisoned in England during the Second World War talking about their war experience and doings. From these materials the authors come to a devastating conclusion: ordinary people can become killing machines. This conclusion goes a long way to rebut answers pointing to other times, other countries and other cultures or solely to those in command. The beast is asleep within us.

Therefore I can resist the temptation to add any image to this post, even if imagination really does not totally capture the reality of an aspect of legal history that is also today’s reality in too many places around the world. The connection of violence with law is perhaps the most compelling argument for lawyers and historians, and in fact for anyone with a mind for real life to see legal history as a vital component of their disciplines, to be neglected only at their own peril. Violence is part of the image of law. Museums and institutions which try to document and to portray the most appalling stories of mankind can help us to face these stories, and not those places which make only attractions out of them.

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