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.
The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) was built almost two decades after Augusto Pinochet’s oppressive dictatorship had ended, leaving behind a bloody trail of human rights abuses and memories of terror. Home to a permanent collection that narrates the story of the Chilean regime’s crimes, this modern, glass-covered and spacious monument is symbolic of the country’s recently acquired freedom, and the many that were killed, tortured and exiled in its name. But the museum is much more than a memorial; it is also a living center for philosophy, politics and culture, its frequent events and rotating exhibitions dedicated to underlining the importance of human rights through various artistic media.
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.
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.
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.
Yad Vashem, Har Hazikaron, Jerusalem, Israel, +972 2-644-3802
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.
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.
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.
September 11 Memorial Museum, Liberty St, New York City, NY, USA, +1 212-312-8800
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.