National Story Telling and the Museum Medium

I’ve had the privilege of living in The People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Japan in the past four years and visited national museums in each. The true impact of these experiences gain value as you add one countries national historical account along side another.

One of the major events of my year studying in China, was the visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, also called the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Placards and notes on the exhibits are written in at least three languages: English, Japanese and Chinese. It is a site designed to be seen by the international eye as proof of China’s suffering. For the native viewer, the impact strives to assure that the gaping wound of resentment will never be closed. From the white bones showing through the open mass grave to notes on the heroism shown by German and American expats, its sculpted to leave an indelible mark on whoever experiences it.

Two years later I visited the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea. Read that again carefully. Not the National Museum of South Korea but the National Museum of Korea. Words really do mean something. Inside the exhibition halls the ideal of a single Korea is carefully presented.

I came to this museum having a degree in East Asian Studies and living a year in China. From my first week in South Korea, I was able to see influences from dynastic China on the local history, much the same way that one can see influences from Rome in Washington D.C. Inside the the National Museum strong nationalistic decencies shied away from attributing significant culture or heritage to the historic Middle Kingdom of Asia. Korea was Korea, the line seemed to be. Korean was Korean because of indigenous Korean capacity.

History is always more complicated than politics would desire, especially nationalistic politics. When I walked down a sidewalk in Seoul, the manholes leading to drains had the Chinese character for water stamped into the metal, not the Korean word. The Korean writing system is about 400 years old. I walked away from National Museum with a sense of how fiercely Korean have had to struggle to keep their peninsula state and an appreciate for much of the grace and art of Korea. But I was also left scratching my head about the idea of a continuously sovereign Korean. Where my textbooks said Korean had paid fealty to this Chinese Emperor or that one, the museum preferred to lay out a gray area of of “mutual benefit relationships” and other kinds of arrangements on display at the museum.

Not that I’m faulting them for it. China does much the same, as do other countries. The idea of a unified dynastic China marching strong down through the pages of history is exactly that, an idea. There have been plethora of civil wars, break away regions, separately ruled Chinas and periods where the Emperors controlled much less territory than China holds today. Even the ethnicity of the rulers changed. It’s a fantasy the Chinese like to tell, much like we like to think that the first thirteen state of the United States were all excited about becoming a unified country.

Later I made my second visit the Yasukuni Jinja Museum in Tokyo. The entire display flows beautiful. Dates and artifacts mix in imaginatively designed rooms that maintain a traditional sense of Japanese value for simplicity. Readings about the Nanjing Massacre or even Hiroshima were noticeable missing. Like in other nationalistic museums, I left with a sense of the courage and resourcefulness of the people of the nation. A Japanese friend I ran into in the museum asked me afterwards, “How does it feel to go through the museum as an American? Isn’t the language very strong for Japan?”

I had to think about my answer. After all the national museums I’ve experienced, I could claim no surprise at the tone of the language. Actually, I wondered aloud to my husband recently on what the national museum in Afghanistan will look like in sixty five years or so. What will the U.S. look like in that museum performance? I don’t know. Honestly, I’m fairly sure it will be more honest with our faults and less honest with our virtues than we would wish, depending on what displays Afghanistan in the best.

I answered my friends question by referring to the hall displaying letters written by men and women to their families before they died. Many of them knew they were about to die. They are moving and powerful in their frequent simplicity. How much do any of us have to say, when we know its the last thing we will say? I’ve read these kind of letters in China, Korea and the U.S. I told my friend, “They all say the same things. They all love their families. They all thank their mothers and fathers and express hope for their siblings or beg those left behind to take care of their children.”

My friend waved her hand between us. “You’re American and I’m Japanese. Look how we are now.”

I agreed with her. Either none of us are the monsters these museums want to make us out to be or we are all monsters in our own turn.

Defining the enemy to create an “us” is easy. Leave the embarrassments on the cutting room floor. Highlight the triumphs and explain away the glaring failures with expressions lack of resources or unfortunate events. Each successful national state will eventually, if not immediately, create a powerful and moving argument for itself.

It’s not in the advantage of anyone drumming up national pride to confront complicated relationships, failed campaigns or what a nation has done when driven to extremes. It requires compassion, mortal fiber and a belief in a nation’s cause that is not based on its shiny image.

Governments need solidarity and power. Individual people need connections and relationships. I think we’ll be chipping away at these blocks of irrational nationalistic pride and hate for years. That’s how thick they are. But I do believe it can be done, since I’ve been experiencing it myself, one cup of tea, coffee, beer or soju at a time.