Space may be a language, but in some cases, place is what we turn to when language fails, when we can't adequately express the contradictory, inchoate feelings we have about the past. To illustrate that point, associate professor of geography Karen Till recounts a story told by Hanno Loewy, director of the Frankfurt Center for Holocaust Studies.
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams
Over a decade ago, an elderly woman visiting from the United States gasped with grief as she approached the ovens at Auschwitz. The woman, who had lost most of her family at Auschwitz, then moved even closer and touched the ovens delicately, almost reverently.
"She was no longer touching this oven as an instrument for murder, but touching it like a shroud, like a thing that touched the dead in their last minutes of dying,"? Loewy explained to Till.
It's stories like this one, collected over years of research, that have shaped Till's understanding of place and memory and spaces of trauma. Till studies wounded cities, cities whose occupants have endured trauma in their collective past: Berlin, complicit in the atrocities of the Holocaust; Cape Town, violently reshaped by apartheid; Buenos Aires, wounded by the war levied by the military against leftists.
The places of memory--museums, monuments, and memorials--that these cities have constructed to remember the trauma of the past are more than simply markers of something that happened long ago, Till explains. They are expressions of an elemental urge that geographers and philosophers have been studying for years: the need to take our pasts and embody them in the environments that we build and the places to which we return.
We do this sometimes to cling to nostalgic memories. Photographs of children at various ages line parents' fireplace mantels. Ticket stubs from concerts decorate bulletin boards.
But we also do it to grapple with horrific past experiences, to let go--without necessarily achieving closure--of our traumatic memories. The wounded and bereaved can experience healing by returning to the site of trauma.
Gunter Morsch, director of the memorial museum at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, told Till that while it may seem perverse, some of the people who have been in concentration camps see them as a kind of home, "even though we usually think of home in warm, touchy-feely ways."
Creators of museums built on sites of historical trauma are increasingly becoming conscious of their therapeutic role in survivors' lives, says Till. The District Six Museum in Cape Town, located in one of the few buildings that wasn't bulldozed when the apartheid government removed residents from the area, sees a fair number of tourists on any given day. But what those tourists probably don't see, Till notes, are the spaces that cater to those whose lives were directly influenced by apartheid.
"They converted the main hall into an exhibition space. But behind that there's a little kitchen area where local people hang out. And behind that still is what's called the homecoming center, where they'll have mourning workshops where people might bring in objects related to whatever memories they want to work through," says Till. The objects, she says, can become a starting point for discussions that help participants come to terms with the past while imagining a better future.
In these museums, these sites of historical trauma, time isn't frozen. "The directors of these places see them as dynamic," Till explains. "They don't want to exactly capture some tragic past. They know that can't happen. But they do understand the need, the basic human need, for feeling understood, for feeling complete."
By Danny LaChance