Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Our Tendencies to Avert Gazes

I am not going to lie. I found out last night that an editorial in the Nashville Scene quoted something I wrote earlier this week and I proceeded to float for the duration of the evening. Mostly because I am a dork. After I calmed down and reread the the editorial piece, a particular idea struck me:
"I think it's natural to avert your gaze from the site of tragedies, to even not realize that you're averting your gaze."
While we see this natural gaze aversion throughout many visitor interactions with various aspects of history, I most experienced it while working at Andersonville. What happened at that site is nothing but tragedy. Being captured as a prisoner of war is one form of tragedy. Having experienced Andersonville, especially in the later months, is another form of tragedy altogether.* Whether people choose to reflect on the modern beauty of the physical place or dwell on patriotic "ideals" today, a common coping mechanism is gaze aversion.

How do we draw visitors' gazes back to the tragedy? It isn't something easy or flippant, "Oh, the history is just there. If the visitors want to engage or learn about the tragedy, they can." For many historic sites, the central theme is essentially humans can be terrible to each other. Loss. Devastation. Death. Cruelty. Grief. Those things feel abrasive (hence our natural tendency to withdraw or ignore those aspects). So what are methods of dealing with tragedy (or even healing from tragedy)?

I lived in Japan for several years as a kid (I won't even mention the number of decades it has now been, so these memories are a little, hmm, dated). One thing that stuck with me was the many "peace parks" throughout the country. These small, public spaces usually had a decorative garden or water feature and a plaque or pictures hanging around the space. Adorning any hanging spaces were strings upon strings of paper cranes. Those pictures, however, were not pretty pictures. As a kid, some of the pictures seemed pretty shocking and almost gross. The pictures showed some of the human cost of nuclear fallout on the country. Black and white images showed burns and disfigurements and completely leveled buildings. All of that was framed by colorful pieces of paper folded into tiny birds. They were places of grieving, the spaces did not shy away from visually conveying some of the tragedy. But the intention of the parks were also for reconciliation and healing. I remember seeing a number of older Japanese people praying and sometimes weeping at the sites. The parks provided the safety of a beautiful space to allow for visitors to face tragedy without averting one's gaze. It was open, free, and available to come and go as the public desired. Nobody said "hey, look here." Yet, the presentation allowed for people to come and engage in the space, engage in the tragic past.

I remember some of these places being close to where I
lived in Sagamihara. (Photo credit: Chaos and Kanji)
What are other ways you have seen effective means of drawing visitors' gazes into the tragic aspects of history? How about for eras that don't have photographs, videos, or other images? How can sites of those tragedies engage visitors?

*I am not advocating the human desire to compare tragedies. "It's not as bad as..." or "Blank was worse..." Each story carries its own weight. I get that. It was common, however, for visitors to assume what happened at Andersonville was a common story at all Civil War prison camps and that is simply not true.
**Still all my opinions, not any official opinions of anybody else.

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