Museums are not neutral.
Despite what many people think, museums are not, and never have been, neutral. Yes, they can be an invaluable educational source, but it is up to the consumer to realise that information is rarely neutral. The way it is said, what is prioritised, and what is not said will always be informed by the message the writer is trying to convey. This has never been more apparent to me than when visiting museums on my 2020 trip to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese people have been through a lot. Their country has been invaded, dominated and destroyed by more than one nation in the past century. The country is still healing and it will be generations before the physical and biological scars disappear – never mind the psychological ones. The Vietnamese people have important stories to tell and their museums are one way to share this with the rest of the world. However, my experience of Vietnamese museums left a sour taste in my mouth. They were so un-neutral and provocative that at times I had quite a difficult museum experience.
The War Remenants Museum in Ho Chi Minh is one example. Previously known as the ‘Museum of American War Crimes’, this museum details the Vietnam War. Its previous title leaves you in no doubt of the intention behind this museum. Dedicated to showing the atrocities of America’s behaviour during the Vietnamese War it was difficult viewing, even for a non-American. I do not mean to suggest that it is not important that America is held accountable for their actions in Vietnam, nor that difficult aspects of the Vietnam War should be hidden away, but it was an unpleasant feeling to view an entire museum dedicated to showing how atrocious the behaviour of one nation was. This museum, like others I visited in Vietnam, also highlighted the tremendous courage of the Vietnamese people and shared stories and photographs of them which otherwise may not have been shown. However at times the tone of this praise seemed odd; not only were the Vietnamese praised for their survival, but also for their own ability to slaughter American soldiers.
On a trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh, our tour leader put on a video that told the history of the Chu Chi Tunnels. The depressing content was at odds with its Disneyesque happy music and narrator cheerfully describing how young girls in Chu Chi had killed many American soldiers. Different young girls were spotlighted for their skills in tricking, trapping and killing American soldiers. They were praised and some were given medals for being ‘American Soldier Killers’. The tone was unashamedly proud as they described these childrens’ dedication to killing their enemies.
This attitude was reinforced when I visited the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. One exhibition wrote extensively on the involvement of girls and women in the Vietnamese war. The museum was great for highlighting individual girls, with pictures and descriptions of what each girl did (in a way I haven’t seen with male Vietnamese soldiers). However, again the museum seemed proud of these girls for their ability to kill and didn’t seem to mourn the loss of their innocence. I do have to say that although I do not agree with the glorifying of killing, I like the respect these girls were given and that they are remembered as strong and capable individuals, often given titles and awards such as ‘Heroines of the People’s Armed Forces’ or ‘Heroic Mother of Vietnam’.
While I am glad the stories of these girls and women are being highlighted, a more nuanced and peaceful tone would, in my opinion, be better. Rather than advocating for the brutality their children were forced to commit during war, the focus should perhaps be on building a future where this would never happen again.
Girl Museum Inc.