Museums and the Representation of War

Jay Winter


Museums are the cathedrals of the twenty-first century, in that they have filled the void left by the conventional churches as a site in which mixed populations of different faiths or no faith at all, of different origins and beliefs, confront and meditate on sacred themes – sacrifice, death, mourning, evil, brotherhood, dignity, transcendence.1 War not only belongs in museums; war dominates museum space in much of the public representation of history and will continue to do so. That being so, it is the task of war museums to persuade visitors to pose the question: how can war be represented? While there is no adequate answer to this question, museum professionals must try to answer it anyway with a large dose of humility. By avoiding the didactic mode, that is, that they know the answer and will present it to the visitors, they can perform a major public service. By admitting the magnitude of the problems inherent in trying to represent war, and through it, trying to represent the pain of others, museum directors and designers fulfil a critical social task. Knowing about war is the business of an informed citizenship, and museums are those sites where moral questions are posed, questions inevitably raised about war, questions about sacrifice, suffering, brotherhood, courage, love, recovery, transcendence. Museums enable visitors to pose these enduring questions, by converting war time into museum space.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Jay Winter

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Museum and Society

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