Personalization of Modern Mourning in Museums and Public Spaces

Dr Siobhán Doyle, Technological University Dublin


Museums and public spaces have shifted from generic, anonymous war memorialization to the public personalized memorialization of victims in which no individual victim is forgotten or deprived of remembrance. Using examples from museums and public spaces in different cultural and international contexts, this blog demonstrates how mourning is personalized by naming individuals through text and also by including photographs of the deceased. These restrained references to victims of conflict can confine engagement with particular individuals and deflect memories of historical violence by casting a shroud over the critical perception of individuals.

‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ opened in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Dublin in 2016. This exhibition reveals the physicalities of life in Ireland before, during and after the events of Easter Week 1916- when some 1,200 rebels occupied buildings across Dublin, triggering a six-day battle which resulted in almost hundreds of fatalities, destroying much of the city centre. The exhibition was the largest display of 1916 material in the history of the institution and in terms of visitor numbers, it’s most successful to date.

On a large wall in Zone Six is The Dead of Easter Week exhibit, which lists the names of some five hundred and fifty people who died because of their injuries during the conflict. The panel presents the individuals on equal footing by listing their name alphabetically by surname and includes their age at the time of death, if available. This categorization of the deceased as a non-specific collective of victims rather than as distinct groups ascertained by their role or political position in the conflict sparked complaints from some visitors to the exhibition. The offence taken by visitors at the names of British soldiers displayed alongside civilians on the other side of the conflict demonstrates a resistance to the reinterpretation of commemorative narratives.

The Dead of Easter Week wall, at the National Museum of Ireland.

This is not the first resistance to the listing of the deceased of the 1916 Rising that has occurred in Dublin in recent years. In April 2016, a ‘Remembrance Wall’ was unveiled at Glasnevin Cemetery. Like the panel at the NMI, the memorial wall bears the names of all those who died in the rebellion, Irish and British, military and civilian. During the official unveiling ceremony, a number of protesters gathered outside the cemetery to demonstrate against the inclusion of the names of British military forces on the wall. The wall was defaced in April 2017 when vandals threw paint over a large section of the wall and in February 2020, the wall suffered further damage when intruders used sledgehammers to remove some of the names from the memorial wall.

The faces of the deceased also become central to the practices of memorialization and their visual presence in public space insists that their deaths are of public concern. Political conflict in particular results in a considerable death toll, making it impossible to commemorate all victims in a meaningful and detailed manner in exhibitions and public spaces. On the representation of fatalities of political conflict en mass, the House of Terror museum in Budapest remembers victims of Soviet Terror by presenting them in a uniform way, using a black and white photographic grid format. Here, the individuals are rendered nameless, with their photographs the only source of cohesion.

Victims of Soviet Terror on a wall at the House of Terror, Budapest.

However, in this attempt to personalize victims of conflict by presenting their photographs, the House of Terror museum display removes distinctiveness between the individuals, as the photographs are manipulated in order to increase uniformity and diminish distinguishable features of the deceased. The photographs completely cover an entire wall in the foyer of the exhibition, meaning visitors are not only overwhelmed by the hundreds of images, but would also have difficulty in deciphering individuals due to the changes made to the images and the scale of the wall, which makes the images indiscernible. This massive display of images is an example of how museums and memorials can underestimate the role of individuals in history by collectively classifying them as victims.

The 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC combines both the inscription of names and photographs of the deceased through the public memorial and online resources. The two acres of granite bears the names of the 58,261 US soldiers who died or disappeared during the Vietnam War. In an effort to further preserve the legacy of those who sacrificed all in Vietnam, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is committed to finding a photo to go with each the names on The Wall. Titled ‘The Wall of Faces’, the online repository allows family and friends to share memories, post pictures and connect with each other. By collecting and displaying photographs online and connecting them to the individuals’ names on the memorial wall, the personalized remembrance capacity of the public space is augmented.

One panel of The Wall, displaying some of the names of fallen U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.
By Hu Totya – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3158087

While the House of Terror is a memorial museum, the NMI is a national cultural institution and both the Glasnevin Memorial Wall and Vietnam Memorial appear in public spaces, all of these present a large group of individuals, united as a collective in death in order to communicate the human devastation of conflict. The personalization of mourning in museums and public spaces inevitably leads to divisive selectivity as it is impossible to represent all individuals publicly. With this in mind, there is a tension between the need to personalize victims so that no individual is forgotten and the decision to maintain anonymity so that they can represent a wider collective by inviting viewers to sympathize and reflect on the overall certainty of our mortality.

 

About the author: Siobhán Doyle recently completed a PhD in Museums, Death and Commemoration at Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) and received the Dean of the College of Arts & Tourism scholarship award in March 2016. Siobhán’s doctoral research examines the challenges of depicting death through exhibition displays by analysing the types of artefacts and imagery used in commemorative exhibitions. Siobhán has presented research papers at international conferences on historical memory and visual culture and her research has been published by Four Courts Press, European Remembrance and Solidarity Network, Arms and Armour journal and the Imperial War Museum forthcoming in 2020. Siobhán’s other research interests include memory studies, material culture, sports history and dark tourism. Siobhán is currently working as a tutor at TU Dublin and at The GAA Museum in Croke Park Stadium.

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