By Catalina Delgado Rojas, Institute for Cultural Practices
What can museums learn from other cultural institutions addressing conflict, memory and transitional justice to support communities during transitional periods? Art, culture and heritage play a fundamental role in restorative justice, due to its capacity to create healing bonds between victims, perpetrators, society and the State. Drawing on Colombia’s experience, Catalina Delgado Rojas highlights four actions that can inspire museums to provide comfort and support to communities transitioning to a post-pandemic world.
[Image credit above: Fragments: space of art and memory. Juan Fernando Castro. 2018]
Since museums around the world started to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions have been re-focusing their activities to provide care and support for their communities during these unprecedented times. Even though museums are trying their best to adapt to their audiences’ needs, cultural institutions devoted to memorialisation, healing trauma, transitional justice and promoting Human Rights can bring useful inputs on how to support communities during turbulent times and in the future transitional period. In this past few months, The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience has been launching webinars to reflect on and create caring actions during the new normal. Similarly, the podcast Museumpunks dedicated an episode on how a transitional justice framework can be a useful approach to build trust and support among communities. In Colombia, my home country, cultural institutions have been developing mechanisms of transitional justice and symbolic reparations for victims, while dealing with political tensions and an ongoing internal conflict. As museums are starting to reopen while we are still experiencing the pandemic, learning from Colombia’s cultural initiatives can be especially interesting to reflect on what museums can learn from symbolic reparations processes.
After more than forty years of conflict, in 2011 the Colombian Government passed the first legislation to recognize the country’s ongoing civil war, known as the Victims Law. With this decree, victims of the conflict are entitled to measures of recognition, restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition in five different dimensions: individual, collective, material, symbolic and moral (Law 1148, 2011). Symbolic reparation processes are inscribed within the restorative justice framework, a perspective focused on repairing damage, healing wounds and re-establishing social ties through discussion and social interactions (Rodríguez Montenegro, 2011). Art, culture and heritage play a fundamental role in restorative justice, due to its capacity to create healing bonds between victims, perpetrators, society and the State. Victims’ participation in these processes is a crucial element, as personal, group or institutional reparations can lead to collective satisfaction (reconstruction of truth, dissemination of historical memory and acknowledgment of victims’ dignity). Furthermore, these actions foster victims’ recognition, trust, social solidarity and empathy towards others (De Greiff, 2006, 464).
Drawing on Colombia’s experience, I would like to highlight four actions that can aid to provide comfort to communities in order to transition into the future post-pandemic world: fostering communities’ cultural expressions of healing; encouraging artistic projects with victims’ participation; developing participatory curatorial memorialization projects; and creating education activities focused on listening to the affected communities.
I. Artistic and aesthetic litigation to foster reparation and non-repetition
Sierra (2015) defines two types of cultural practices that have been taking place in the Colombian context as symbolic reparations actions: artistic and aesthetic litigation. The category of “aesthetic litigation” involves artistic and cultural manifestations of victims representing previous human rights violation in the context of war (Sierra, 2015, p.11). This actions are created within the community and have proven to be essential to restorative justice actions programmes. Los Tapices de Mampuján (Mampuján tapestries) are an example of “aesthetic litigation”. As part of their healing processes, victims of the Mampuján massacre started to embroider fabrics to convey their history of forced displacement and destruction of their town. This initiative portrayed human rights violations and disasters related to the war and subsequently continued to denounce other historic human rights violations such as slavery during the colonial period. The Mampuján weavers have participated in numerous exhibitions, which have allowed them to share their process of resilience and support other victims. Two quilts became part of the National Museum of Colombia permanent collection in 2014 and are permanently displayed in the gallery devoted to Nation and Memory. Other community initiatives, such as the theatre play El olvido está lleno de memoria (The act to forgetting is full of memory), have been empowered by restorative justice verdicts. As a result, the State was compelled to promote and include the theatre play in several cultural festivals, fostering measures of satisfaction and non-repetition.
“Artistic litigation” is characterized by the presence of an artwork which aims to denounce human rights violations (Sierra, 2015, p.11). The dignity of the victims and contributions to guarantees of satisfaction and non-repetition should also be guaranteed. As an example of artistic litigation, Sierra relates the work of Juan Manuel Echevarria Bocas de ceniza(Ash Mouths) (2003-2004),where victims in the regions of Chocó and Magdalena sang their experiences and perceptions of violence in their territory (Sierra, 2015, p.14).
A more recent example of “artistic litigation” is Fragments, Colombia’s first counter-monument. As part of the peace agreements between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP (2016), both sides agreed to build three monuments in honour of the victims with the 8,900 weapons laid down by the ex-guerrilla. Doris Salcedo, the selected artist to build the monument in Bogotá, placed women victims of sexual violence in its core. She enlisted the collaboration of La Red de Mujeres víctimas y profesionales (Network of women victims and professionals), an organization providing support to women victims of sexual abuse in Colombia’s regions. The participants prepared 11 matrix tiles to transform 37 tons of metal (from the handed guns) into 1,300 floorplates. Despite the tensions and critiques raised by the state-sponsored project, the counter-monument highlights one of the least discussed war crimes, even though the National Centre for Historical Memory has recorded more than 15,000 instances of sexual assault during the war.
Since the inauguration, La Red de Mujeres víctimas y profesionales and other public and international institutions have increased their participation in Fragments to promote Human Rights and raise awareness to stop violence against women. Since the Victims’ Law, public cultural institutions have increased their involvement in art and cultural projects addressing Colombia’s internal conflict. These endeavours have proven to be effective in providing support and advocating for the reconstruction and dissemination of victim’s testimonies as part of the restoration of their dignity.
II. Participatory curatorship to guarantee truth and satisfaction
The Law 1448 (2011) also enforced the establishment of transitional public institutions, such as the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH). One of the main tasks of the CNMH is to establish a museum as part of the reparation measures of the victims. The National Memory Museum (MMHC) is an ongoing project due to open its doors in Bogotá in 2021. In 2018, the curatorial team of MMHC, under the direction of leading curator Cristina Lleras, developed a pilot project of an exhibition Voces para transformar a Colombia(Voices to transform Colombia), before the inauguration of the Museum’s physical building. During the process of making the exhibition, the victims participated in the curatorial script. After the inauguration, they worked along with the education team during the exhibition.
Curators, artists and victims from Colombia’s different regions collaborated to represent testimonies of conflict, trauma and resilience from a multisensorial experience. According to the curatorial team, during the process victims felt accompanied as visitors listened to their voices, contributing to measures of truth, reparation and satisfaction (Lleras et al., 2019, p. 558). The exhibition also focused in encouraging “meaning-making” among the audience by fostering recognition of others and feelings of empathy and reflecting on how to collaborate with transitional actions and contribute to non-repetition (Lleras et al., 2019, p.546). These thoughts were activated by questioning assumptions and emotions about the armed conflict, as well as encouraging contributions towards social and political transformations. Even though the curatorial team acknowledged their limits in the process (there was not equal participation between victims and museum professionals), the pilot was useful to understand how to display and communicate multiple voices around the conflict. The collaborative curatorial approach promoted communities’ agency and validated museographical content in order to avoid re-victimization and convey the victims’ experiences truthfully.
Despite the National Memory Museum’s progress in the development of its curatorial script, Colombia’s political tensions have dramatically affected the fruition of this project. In 2019, the arrival of a right-wing government led to a shift in the direction of the CNMH. The new director Rubén Darío Acevedo, appointed by president Iván Duque refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Colombian conflict. A few months later, he attempted to censor part of the content of the exhibition Voces para tranformar a Colombia presented at the Museo la Tertulia in Cali. The absence of public recognition of the history of conflict and trauma not only hindered victims’ right, but also makes the State unaccountable for the Colombian conflict, avoiding the responsibility to enforce reparation measures and further guarantees of non-repetition. Colombia’s particular case evidences the power of museums as political and ideological institutions to deny or censor historical memory which will be a crucial process during the post-pandemic. However, it also depicts the capability of the communities to reclaim institutional transformation. As MMHC failed to listen to the communities it was meant to protect, various groups of victims lost confidence in the project and withdrew their archives from the institution and consequently international organisations stopped supporting the institution.
III. Listening: the core of educational transitional activities
In the previously referred projects, the participation of the victims in mediation and education activities has been one of the key factors in communicating and building bridges between victims, institutions and the community. In the exhibition Voces para transformar a Colombia, the participation of the victims was a pivotal factor to socialise the meaning of the exhibition (Lleras et al., 2019). The pilot project for the future Museum of Memory also provided a safe space for victims and ex-combatants to meet and a platform for participants to get to know other similar processes related with resilience and human rights activism in Colombia’s regions. Likewise, the active participation of La red de Mujeres Víctimas y Profesionales has significantly impacted the audience’s experience in the counter-monument. La Red continuously conducts workshops on sexual abuse with public schools. The women also attend regularly the space to share their stories with the public. During the numerous occasions they occupied Fragments with their voices, the visitors listen attentively, shared their mourning, and on other occasions, they responded to the women “it happened to me too”. Making their stories visible has facilitated the dialogue of painful memories related to violence against women.
In 2019, I worked as supervisor of the education team in Fragments. Along with the other mediators, we identified two significant challenges regarding the activities in the space of art and memory. The first one was to bring human rights discussions beyond the context of Colombia’s internal conflict. Even though the counter-monument addressed a particular type of human right violation, the fact that the monument was also a result of the Peace Agreement enabled the dialogue around post-conflict human rights responsibilities such as truth, reparation, satisfaction and non-repetition. On the other hand, sexual violence against women is a human right violation affecting women beyond the context of war. The participation of la Red de Mujeres víctimas y profesionales in the space and the discussions triggered by the educational team based on other women’s written testimonies (Las Troyanas) allowed visitors to establish an emotional connection with their stories. On a second stage, the education mediators and La Red engaged in conversations about how these human rights violations were deeply rooted in everyday patriarchal culture. These dialogues fostered further discussions around gender inequalities and allowed the audience the opportunity to participate and share related difficult memories.The second challenge implied the development of self-care strategies for the education team regularly attending visitors. Our presence in Fragments allowed us to listen to testimonies, conversations between victims and victimisers and conferences related to sexual violence organised by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). On the one hand, this opportunity let us replicate these stories to other visitors, establishing emotional connections and further conversations around the Colombian conflict. On the other hand, the intense emotions caused by the conflict and the country’s history of violence also overwhelmed the mediators. We were many times drawn to convey emotional support to victims or to participate in debates with antagonising visitors. In order to ease the emotional surcharge the education team developed self-care activities such as: weekly meetings to talk about experiences in the space; a shared document to give an account of difficult situations; a higher rotation of the educators; and a study group to have a comprehensive approach to Colombia’s conflict, peace process and victims’ rights. We also found many pedagogical and psychosocial tools already developed by victim’s organisations and transitional institutions to learn how to listen and provide support to the affected communities. According to these toolkits and our own personal experience the education team established as guiding principles of their practice to listen and recognise victims’ testimonies; acknowledge their different social and political backgrounds; understanding their specific needs; and encouraging any satisfaction and non-repetition activities within the space.
IV. Museums and community support
The COVID-19 Pandemic is amplifying pre-existing cracks and inequalities in society. In this sense, museums thriving for social justice should address those gaps through solidarity and empathy to support communities towards the future transition to “normality”. Even though not all museums have experience of healing strategies, transitional frameworks or memorialization, they have the professional talent and creative resources to attend those needs. According to Colombia’s previous experiences developing transitional cultural actions, museums should support communities in four different areas: fostering communities’ projects, encouraging artistic expressions, creating participatory curatorial projects and developing supportive education programmes.
Artistic and aesthetic litigation have proven to be platforms that allow affected communities to connect with multiple actors and establish networks to support actions of public recognition and thrive for social justice. Similarly, curatorial projects involving the community can translate participants’ memories into museographical languages, guaranteeing measures of truth and dignification for the ones who have suffered and encouraging future actions towards social equality. In both cases, institutions and artists serve as catalysts to empower vulnerable communities, socialise difficult memories and stretching social bonds. To comprehensively complement these projects the education activities, need to focus on emotional empathy, listening to participants and engaging in caring activities. Finally, it is crucial to underline that implementing strategies of self-care for museums workers is essential for these institutions to be able to support others.
De Greiff, P. 2006. “Justice and Reparations.” In The Handbook of Reparations, edited by Pablo de Greiff, 451–477. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lleras, C., González-Ayala, S. N., Botero-Mejía, J., & Velandia, C. M. (2019). Curatorship for meaning making: Contributions towards symbolic reparation at the Museum of Memory of Colombia. Museum Management and Curatorship, 34(6), 544–561.
Rodríguez Montenegro, G. P. (2011). Los límites del perdón. Notas sobre la justicia transicional en Sudáfrica, Centroamérica y Colombia. Justicia Juris, 7(2), 52–66.
Sierra, Y. (2015). Reparación Simbólica, Litigio estético y Litigio Artístico: Reflexiones en torno al arte, la cultura y la justicia restaurativa en Colombia. Departamento de Derecho Constitucional, Universidad Externado de Colombia.
Catalina Delgado Rojas is a Colombian post-graduate student at The University of Manchester. Her previous work as a researcher has been focused on women and the sporting body, digital humanities and cultural heritage, and gender approach in Latin American museums. Her professional experience in the cultural sector includes developing educational workshops, curating exhibitions, creating community heritage projects, and assorting archives. In 2019, she was part of the education team in Colombia’s first counter-monument to peace conceived by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo.