The World’s Most Important Memorial Museums

| © Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo
A. J. Samuels

These 10 memorial museums and remembrance halls demonstrate that cultural awareness, public education and honoring memory can, at least in part, aid the recovery process. From the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland to the House of Slaves in Senegal, these are 10 of the most important memorial museums in the world.

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Japan | Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

An oasis of tranquility in the heart of Hiroshima, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum honors the memory of those who lost their lives during the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange and constructed in 1955, a decade after the indescribable explosions killed over 200,000 Japanese civilians, the memorial hall preserves objects that once belonged to the victims, including personal items like a watch that stopped when the first explosion occurred, and materials showing Hiroshima and its residents before, and after the attacks. The museum is surrounded by a sculpture garden and exhibition space, where historic architectural elements meet the forward-looking modernism in a setting that is both mindful of its history, and optimistic about the future.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Chile | Museum of Memory and Human Rights

Poland | Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau | Courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, in the town of Oświęcim near Kraków, tells a story that is as tragic as it is inconceivable. The complex sits on the original site where the infamous Nazi concentration and extermination camp was located, many of the original watchtowers, structures and ruins still standing as powerful reminders of the tremendous loss and suffering inflicted on Europe’s Jewish and Eastern European population. The museum, which opened in 1947, two short years after the end of the Second World War, protects the memory of the lives lost here through an unsettlingly vast collection of objects that once belonged to the camp prisoners, from personal talismans and works of art to over 100,000 shoes left quietly behind.

Cambodia | Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng, also known as the Security Prison-21, was one of the most infamous detention centers of the Khmer Rouge regime, a building where almost 20,000 people were tortured and killed in the four years of the regime’s existence, most of them innocent civilians. Today, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum conveys the atrocities of that time with undeniable directness, its collection of poignant photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge, torture devices and human skulls creating a narrative that strikes the visitor with its intimate, bone-chilling tragedy. Along with the notorious Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng is one of the few existing reminders of the bloodiest chapter in Cambodia’s history.

Armenia | The Armenian Genocide Museum

Referred to as The Great Crime (Medz Yeghern) in Armenia, the Armenian Genocide was arguably the greatest tragedy ever to strike the Armenian nation. The Ottoman government’s symbolic execution of 250 high-ranking Armenian leaders and intellectuals in 1915 was only the beginning of a massacre that would consume one million lives, and see women and children driven out to the Eastern deserts on death marches, while most able-bodied men were put to forced labor. The Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan is a gripping walk through history, from the pre-genocide era to heart-wrenching interviews, eyewitness reports and films that speak of the intense anguish of the genocide survivors.

Israel | Yad Vashem

Erected in 1953, four short years after the establishment of the Israeli state, Yad Vashem stands as a monument to the Jewish people, the six million who perished in the Holocaust, those who fought, and those who survived. As a research and education facility, Yad Vashem’s schedule revolves around talks, ceremonies and events to deepen public understanding of a people’s struggle to survive in a hostile world. At the heart of the 45-acre site sits the Museum complex, including the Holocaust History Museum, Hall of Names, Museum of Holocaust Art and more, which are collectively visited by over one million people per year. There is also a more symbolic dimension to Yad Vashem: at the center of the Moshe Safdie-designed museum sits the Hall of Remembrance, a basalt-covered space engraved with the names of Nazi concentration camps, and illuminated by a single eternal flame, beyond which the ashes of the Holocaust victims are stored.

China | Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum

Although it lasted only six weeks, the 1937 Nanking Massacre (or the Rape of Nanking) was one of the most painful episodes in Chinese history, where around 200,000 Chinese were robbed, raped and slaughtered by the invading Japanese army. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum stands on top of one of the biggest burial sites of the time, its roots and exhibitions bound profoundly to the fate of the victims. Surrounded by symbolic sculptures in the outdoor exhibition space, the interior of this tomb-like museum houses a vast, coffin-shaped memorial containing the victims’ bones, as well as a hall where historic documents and photographs are stored.

South Africa | Apartheid Museum

Featuring a comprehensive and carefully curated selection of photographs, videos, artifacts and objects documenting the history of South Africa in the 20th century, the Apartheid Museum pays tribute to the victims and survivors of the nation’s divisive racial segregation policy, which ended with Nelson Mandela’s rise to power. From the moment they enter the museum through racially classified gates (‘white’ and ‘non-white’), visitors are immersed in the socio-political hell that tore South Africa apart and saw its black population suffer in their own home while the whites prospered. A program of themed, temporary exhibitions complements the permanent collection, making this museum worth visiting more than once.

USA | September 11 Memorial Museum

The View of the North Pool by Night at the September 11 Memorial Museum | Courtesy of Amy Dreher
Nestled within a memorial site designed by American-Israeli architect Michael Arad, the September 11 Memorial Museum opened its doors to the public in 2014, 13 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, as a place to commemorate the victims. Its unique design consisting of lush greenery, trees, two deep pools representing the fallen Twin Towers and a modernist museum building, is suggestive of the Reflected Absence after which it is named, a peaceful yet haunting symbol of lives lost and shattered. The museum itself sits below ground and presents objects, memorabilia and photographs left behind by the 9/11 victims in a sobering, thought-provoking setting.

Senegal | La Maison des Esclaves

La Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves, sits perched on Senegal’s Gorée Island as a reminder of the atrocities inflicted upon Africa’s peoples by the Atlantic slave trade. The building itself, with its maze of cells and narrow corridors, is said to be one of the most historically significant points of West Africa’s slave trade; an exit point from which innumerable black slaves departed from their homeland, never to return. Currently managed by UNESCO, La Maison des Esclaves is as eerie as it is authentic, its empty rooms and sporadic artifacts only emphasizing the sheer scale of Africa’s greatest human drama.

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