For those of you unfamiliar with his other work, Viet Thanh Nguyen is a professor, cultural critic, MacArthur genius and fiction author best known for The Sympathizer (his 2015 debut novel) and most recently The Refugees. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is, according to his website, the product of sixteen years of research and travel, and the critical and research compendium to The Sympathizer. The book looks at representations and memory of what I will call the War (the opening chapter details the contrasting names, as it is known as “The American War” in Vietnam, the “Vietnam War” in America, and the
Nguyen rightfully considers Cambodia and Laos as part of the war) in multiple countries (South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, the U.S.) and from the double-consciousness of Nguyen’s Vietnamese-American identity. The book is long, rich and complex, reviewing dozens of works of cultural production in mediums ranging from exhibits to literature to video games (Call of Duty) and spanning time periods from works that address the earliest years of the War to extending the shadow of the conflict to the ongoing Middle-Eastern conflicts.
As a museum professional, I think one of the book’s most important takeaways is that the book introduces the concept of the “memory industry” and examines our commercialization of memory in a way we often don’t do in our day-to-day work. Differentiating it from “the industrialization of memory”, Nguyen defines the memory industry as worse as kitch, but at its best, “the memory industry calls forth the professionalization of memory through the creation of museums, archives, festivals, documentaries, history channels, interviews and so on” and complicates this by proposing that the memory industry is just what is on display, but more important are the “ideas, ideologies, fantasies and words” (107), which he deems the industrialization of memory. As a museum professional, the way I interpret this is similar to looking at the “output” versus the “outcome” in lesson plans or grant applications. The output is the memory industry (the products of memory) while the outcome is the industrialization (the critical framework behind the exhibit, and the discussion of how to memorialize). I cannot speak for any other museum work besides my own, but I see in my own work that sometimes there is a lack of awareness of how public memory and the industry of memory relates. In graduate school and at conferences, I feel like I had a deep awareness of how the “ideas, ideologies, fantasies and words” shaped the consciousness of whatever it was I interpreted, but as I get bogged into projects I feel sometimes this is an afterthought, or only discussed when the topic merits significant press exposure (for example, post-Charleston and post-Charlottesville). There are certainly professional support organizations that furnish museums with the tools to do this (Facing History and Ourselves, International Sites of Conscience) but I worry sometimes we as a field outsource debates of public memory or relegate it only to conferences as we focus on the nuts-and-bolts of our jobs. My question for you is this: in your cultural organizations, how do you keep discussions of the philosophy of memory part of the day-to-day work and the day-to-day culture? Does anyone have examples of an organization who is doing this successfully?
Another discussion that has ramifications on the museum field is the discussion of who has the right to storytelling. The second segment of the book, focusing on the aesthetics of war, contains a long discussion on “ethnic literature” and who has ownership over stories. Nguyen writes “telling on others and ourselves is perilous, not least of all for those artists who confront the victimization that would silence them and the lure of having a voice that promises to liberate them” (198) as an introduction to a larger discussion on how Vietnamese-American authors are boxed by American ethnic and more importantly, racial associations. He goes on to say “Minority writers know they are most easily heard in America when they speak about the historical events that defined their populations. These writers can speak of something else, but they are rewarded for speaking about their history and their race” (201). He follows with a discussion of the emotional toll this harmful construct creates, summarizing Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” a story about a young Vietnamese-American writer who resists writing about the war but eventually decides to write about his father’s experiences as a My Lai survivor for his own survival as a writer. The writer’s father, however, burns the book, demonstrating the complexities of story ownership and the dangers of pigeonholing cultural producers. Thinking about this from a museum perspective, this relates to our ongoing commitment as a field to diversity and inclusion and making sure we offer equal (not pigeonholed) opportunities for PoCs working in our field, but also how we solicit and negotiate community involvement in the exhibit process. Community perspective and story ownership is diverse and multi-faceted; memory and relationship to memory depends on individual experience and often age and generation. To truly master community engagement, it requires deep engagement with multiple individuals so you don’t let one person become a spokesperson or tokenized. It requires deep listening, going into communities not once, not twice but multiple times, and hearing multiple voices (including hearing silences) rather than just the loudest voices that are most eager to tell their stories.
Who are telling these stories and what methods and aesthetics do they use in telling these stories? What cultural norms are dictating the way people respond to these stories? To whose standards do we judge them by? I was particularly struck by Nguyen’s comparison of cultural sites and genocide museum in southeast Asia to ornate Holocaust Museums worldwide, and his discussion of smaller, community-driven cultural institutions such as the Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam. He specifically compares German museums of the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camp sites to Tuol Sleng, Saigon’s War Remnants Museum, and Choeng Ek in their aesthetics, writing initially to set up the comparison that “the Germans had processed their history over decades, and with the resources of a wealthy country had built the finest of memorials and museums dedicated to the Holocaust, attuned to Western standards of aesthetics that had become universal by dint of Western power” (258) and focusing on the artistic edifices of museum display such as artful exhibitions, manicured landscapes, and marble. He then says of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese museums: “I saw the poverty of memory found in poor countries, in small places. The typical signs of wealthy memory were absent. There were no vast expanses of marble and granite, no imposing sheets of glass, no precision-cut etchings, no grammatically perfect captions and commentaries in any language” (259), and then goes on to describe some of the more graphic imagery associated with these less-polished sites, such as the skull displays at Tuol Sleng. Nguyen characterises Westernized genocide museums as “high memory” that impacts moral judgement and is sanitized and idolized, while southeast Asian museums are “low memory” that “confronts and exhausts” (260). While Nguyen admits that he finds the southeast Asian museums personally to be more memorable and emotionally-affecting, he observes that Southeast Asian museums are receiving assistance from first-world museums and that “memory in Southeast Asia will change, and people should not be denied their right to the trappings of wealthy memory” (261). Nguyen ultimately concludes that any type of just (or inclusive) memory would have to include both types of products.
The idea of authentic, community-driven museums versus the professionalization of the museum practice, and what makes appropriate public memory in different contexts, is extremely relevant to the field. For example, in my own travels through the Balkans, in 2016, I experienced the most affecting emotional reactions in the museums that were not necessarily “high quality” or practicing the highest standards of museum practice, but in the museums that felt like they were authentic spaces for individuals to tell their stories (such as in the International War Photography Center in Mostar), which was gritty, un-air conditioned, difficult to access, and poorly-lit. At the time of my travels, and through my many visits to Sarajevo’s museums, I remember thinking that all I wanted to do professionally was use my skills in exhibit design and programming to bring museums in second and third world countries up to U.S. standards; it didn’t occur to me that what I was thinking was extremely culturally imperialist, or that the emotional appeal of the museum might be mitigated by making some of these changes. I also admit to having similar thoughts when working with some of my treasured colleagues in Nigeria at my previous position, especially when we hosted a professional study tour for four professionals. Reflecting on my own experiences as well as Nguyen’s, I think I come to the same conclusion that he does: both a “highbrow” memory industry and a more grittier form of remembrance are necessary, and memory must come from a context of both. “Highbrow” memory is sanitized, beautified and honorific for victims and humanizing, but grittier remembrance is more evocative, and effective at demonstrating the inhumanity of perpetrators. When working with sensitive content (be it in the scape of genocides or even in exhibits that examine violence in our own communities, such as the violence of intergenerational trauma or slavery at Civil War-era historic sites) it’s important to think about who we invite to tell our stories, and what their aesthetic is. Community projects may not have the same aesthetic as “high” memory projects, but they can be more powerful (for a lighter example, I’m thinking of the museum to the teenage experience pop-up in Chevy Chase, Maryland). To create a complete representation, our field needs both high and low experiences.
Nguyen’s book was complex, rich and deep, but ultimately an easy read. Nguyen writes for the general public and this book definitely was also meant to be enjoyed by the public, rather than just scholars. Since memory is so personal and everyday, I commend that he wrote in a style that encourages anyone and everyone to read this. If you’d like to pick up a copy, head on over to Amazon.