The Role of Museums for Peace in preventing War and Promoting

8th International Conference of Museums for Peace

The Role of Museums for Peace in preventing War and Promoting

Remembrance, Historical Truth and Reconciliation

No Gun Ri, Korea
19-22 September 2014


Convened under the joint aegis of

International Network of Museums for Peace


NGR International Peace Foundation


Conference Paper

The role of Peace Museums in mobilizing youth towards a future without war by Fran E. Wright, Programme Director UNESCO Club Vienna/Programme Management Consultant for the establishment of the Peace Museum Vienna/Member of INMP


The definition of Museums for Peace according to the International Network of Museums for Peace INMP is non-profit educational institutions that promote a culture of peace through interpreting, collecting and displaying peace related material. They inform the public about peace and nonviolence using illustrations from the lives of individuals, the work of organizations, campaigns and historical events. Included are also peace related sites, centres and institutions which are involved in peace education through exhibitions, documentation and other related activities.

In exploring the subject of this conference, namely The Role of Museums for Peace in preventing War and Promoting Remembrance, Historical Truth and Reconciliation, it is noted that “promoting remembrance” and “presenting historical truth” are essential to “reconciliation” processes with the aim to “prevent war”.

However, while there is no indication that Peace Museums in themselves “prevent war”, the role and inherent responsibility of Museums for Peace should not be underestimated in contributing to a culture of peace. This paper will explore the role of youth seen as agents of change for peace, their role as agents for change in museums and the potential for expanding the space for the engagement of youth in the peace museum network with the aim to mobilize youth towards imagining a future without war.




“Increasing recognition of the essential role of youth in peace-building is now beginning to manifest itself in efforts to actualize that role.  The future moral, social, and political challenge will be to see whether humanity can mobilize the energy, creativity, and vision of youth in pursuit of peace as successfully as it has in pursuit of war.”  Dr. Roshan Danesh, University of British Columbia (Canada), the European Peace University (Austria), British Columbia Justice Institute and senior member of International Education for Peace Institute.

The immediacy of war and conflict reported through the media continues to sensitize generations of individuals to a continuing state of conflict and fear. Military-backed corporate governments and global concerns have a clear interest in reinforcing a skepticism of peace processes, with peace advocates and movements being characterized at best naïve and irrelevant and at worst unpatriotic, anti-democratic and subversive.  A particular challenge for Peace Museums is to instill confidence that peace is not just a nostalgic buzz-word word on a T-shirt but a desirable as well as an attainable state of being.

Youth as agents of change – Creating a Culture of Peace and Dialogue

Humanity, throughout history, has disproportionately placed the burdens of war and violence on young people.  With respect to children, political and legal discourse has recognized the need to completely do away with this tradition.  For example, Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges signatories to prevent children under 15 years of age from directly participating in hostilities, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention increases this age to those under 18. Such international legal norms are accompanied by widespread political condemnation of the involvement of children in war.  At the same time, developments in other sectors, including the emergence of the discipline of peace education, speak to the central role of children in the global project of achieving peace.

Most, if not all, cultures traditionally seek to safeguard the innocence of children, and recognize within children an affirmation of human capacities for goodness.  Our perceptions of youth, however, are different.  While social, cultural, and economic forces all contribute to young people being conscripted as agents of violence, these are reinforced by normative expectations in many societies and traditions that youth are – in some manner – inherently volatile, and even dangerous. 

Viewing youth as agents of peace challenges these traditional images. As opposed to viewing youth as a period of life in which violent behaviour is something to be channelled and checked –a re-conceptualization of the qualities of youth takes place and they are seen as essential to the challenges of building peace. Such a re-conceptualization remains, relatively speaking, in its infancy. 

According to UNESCO, “The challenge of the new millennium is to redefine a peaceful way of living together. Through common action, young people shape a new perception of cultural diversity as a positive value.[1]

In 2010, the UNESCO Club Vienna was invited to open the International Year of the Youth (2010-2011) at the Vienna International Centre.  In his introductory remarks Director of UNIS Maher Nasser highlighted that when UN Member States decided on designating the International Year of the Youth, they did so in recognition of the fact that young people in all countries are a major human resource for development, positive social change and technological innovation. The ideals, energy and vision of youth are essential for the continuing development of their societies. "Young people are not merely passive beneficiaries but effective agents of change", added Maher Nasser.

Youth and Museums

While many museums are successfully integrating ‘EDUTAINMENT’ programmes targeting children and families, they have not guaranteed a sustained interest in museums as the children grow older. Youth audiences have quite particular interests and expectations when it comes to museums. Youth need opportunities to explore a widening world and reflect on new experiences so they begin to consider themselves as participants in society, not just observers. Generally speaking from a euro-centric perspective, youth are:

  • interested in the here and now and possible futures rather than retrospectives
  • more interested in ideas linked to objects than the objects alone
  • interested in achievements of their generation
  • interested in issues that explore personal identity in relation to more global issues
  • share and compare experiences rather than read and view
  • developing their sense of personal identity (not so much understanding the nations' identity
  • developing their relationships (sharing views with friends and partners)
  • feel museums are not very relevant to them
  • don't feel a part of museums and feel that programmes are done to them not with them
  • want opportunity to test skills and engage interactively but they see interactive exhibitions in museums as unappealing as they are usually aimed at children
  • see museums as boring, exhibitions: didactic, unapproachable and protective
  • are looking for a social and enjoyable venue, a personal experience with the opportunity to meet and learn from like-minded people, ask questions and share ideas
  • are strongly influenced by past experiences especially memories of enforced school visits to museums and doing boring worksheets that prevented them from pursuing their own interests
  • remember family visits more favourably but relegated to distant nostalgic past

Traditional museum exhibitions do not facilitate dialogue and social interaction relying for the most part on text panels and display cases to convey the message to visitors. Although virtual museum spaces seem to be gaining ground, young audiences show relatively low levels of interest in website, broadcast media or resource centres as means to access collections - their desire for a social venue and opportunity to meet and talk with people could be the reason for this. They also have access to this technology in other places - home, school, cafes, Universities. Many in this age group are already engaged in study (secondary or tertiary) so overly educational approaches are an additional burden and therefore less appealing.

Museum Information: a shift of paradigms  

In the 1980s a shift of paradigms happened in museology: the importance of objects was questioned in favour of the importance of information (Pearce 1986). Scholars like Wilcomb E. Washburn suggested that the emphasis of museum work should be put on information rather than on objects (1984, pp. 14f), others like George MacDonald and Stephan Alsford (MacDonald/Alsford 1989, MacDonald/Alsford 1991, Alsford 1991, MacDonald 1992) described the museum as an information utility going as far as stating that museums need to think of information, rather than of material objects, as their basic resource (Alsford 1991, p.8). Finally museums were no longer thought of as being repositories of objects only but as “storehouses of knowledge as well as storehouses of objects” (Cannon-Brookes 1992, p. 501; Hooper-Greenhill 1992, pp. 3f).

An important issue related to that shift of paradigms was the growing importance of museum education and visitor studies. A number of studies on visitor interests were conducted such as those by Melora McDermott (1988) and the Getty Center for Education and the Arts (1991). The findings of these reports showed that the visitors thought information to be important for the appreciation of museum objects in general and for art in particular. If they do not get this information, visitors lack the key to the understanding of museum objects and they cannot connect to the object. Therefore they behold the objects for a few seconds only (Treinen 1996, p. 65). As Laura Chapman states (1982, p. 48); the myth that “objects speak for themselves” forgets that the meaning of an object is learned and established by the context. The importance of context and how it is communicated is also emphasized by Treinen (1996, p. 65) who reasons that communication is the key to the understanding of the museum object. Instead of only presenting objects, museums have to create meaning and establish context. This shows that an important aspect of the museum is to connect visitors, objects and information, an idea for which Glen H. Hoptman has introduced the term connectedness.

While Hoptman introduced the term as a quality that allows the “virtual museum” to transcend the abilities of the traditional museum in presenting information this quality can be realized in different ways, for example, in displaying digital representations of works of art next to comparative works by the same artist, artists who have influenced him or her, or works of the same style or period that are exhibited in museums at various geographic locations or that are otherwise not normally accessible together.  Connectedness does not merely mean to link objects together but to give visitors the opportunity to focus on their special interests by pursuing them in an interactive dialogue with the museum.

This was an important step in the development from the traditional museum to the museum of the future, as Hooper-Greenhill (1994, pp. 134) emphasizes: the museum changes from a “collection-driven museum” to an “audience-driven museum” that tries to relate to particular visitor groups and to focus on the visitors instead of the collections they visit.

Almost 20 years later, the Museum of London staged the ground-breaking “audience-driven museum” project Stories of the World. This project encouraged young people in the UK to explore, engage with and influence museum collections and historic sites. In London alone the project intensively engaged 1,000 young people aged 14 – 24 from across 23 museums, challenging them to tell their stories, and the stories of the world, through a wide variety of activities. The project also enabled museum professionals to use the young people’s different perspectives as a catalyst and resource to transform the way they work and their museums.

The Museum of London looked at the theme of place, exploring the legacy of the Romans who first built the city and examining the relationship between Roman London and the capital today. In addition, modern objects highlighted the similarities and differences between Roman Londinium and 21st century London. These included decorative nails from Dalston nail bar which showed how modern day and Roman Londoners express identity through fashion, while V for Vendetta masks worn by protesters in the Occupy movement and protest placards from the ‘March for the Alternative’ examined issues of power and authority, past and present.

The young people curating the exhibition were part of Junction, the Museum of London’s youth panel. Members of Junction worked closely with Museum of London staff to choose objects, write text panels and even appoint the illustrator responsible for the exhibition’s visual identity. Other young people from a number of partner organisations across London created artistic content for the exhibition.

The Junction Youth Panel of the Museum of London

The Junction youth panel was set up in early 2010 as part of the Stories of the World project. The panel is made up of young people aged between 16 and 21. Members have worked with the Museum to deliver the project and ensure the displays and events appeal to young people.

Junction members participated in all parts of the project, including helping to curate displays and organize public events. Junction members were also involved in exciting creative and media based activities, such as filmmaking and podcasting. Junction youth panel is the most important legacy for Stories of the World project at the Museum of London and the panel has continued to meet and participate in other Museum projects, managed by the dedicated Youth Programme Coordinator.

Junction's top tips for engaging young people

Don't put me in a box (or case)

“There's a perception among the older generation of what our lives are like. Skins a myth and exams are difficult – it's important that young people are not labelled.

Museums can sometimes stereotype what they think young people are about. We dress differently, we fall into a gap between 'family' and 'adult' visitors, and we're constantly in the papers as a broken and bored generation. It's a difficult place to begin.

But, if your museum is really serious about working with young people, we have a fail-proof method for making sure you don't put us in a box before you've even started: go out of your front door and start talking to some young people. It's really that simple.

The Our Londinium 2012 process started in 2009 with five young people and a camera telling the Museum what London meant to them. We have been talking ever since. We're looking to be challenged, and to challenge what you think of us. When we work together, museums are spaces where this can happen”.

It's about me

“When writer and singer Akala tells us “knowledge is power” he takes it to a level that museums should strive for. We're talking about learning for life not learning for school. Young people like to learn for themselves, in their own way and in their own time – we do this best when we can relate to what we are looking at.

In Our Londinium 2012 we take objects as jump-off points for looking at our lives. We researched what each object meant in Roman society and whether this would have any importance in a young Londoner's life today.

It's about the experience of being part of something creative, rather than just being a member of an audience. Working with artists, film makers, animators and poets, Junction found different ways of relating to the museum's collections, finding new angles of displaying these objects”.

We like freeness

“It's much more of an incentive to try out a museum if there is no extra cost. We already have enough essential costs to cover from transport to nights out. As a result we're constantly thinking in different currencies: a fiver to get into an exhibition versus coffee with a friend? Which one are we more likely to choose?

It's also about giving young people opportunities. No young person should feel they're being excluded from getting involved in really cool projects like ours on the basis of cost.

Our transport fares to come to Junction meetings are always refunded – it shows how committed the museum is to having us here, and it means that if you live in Wembley, it's just as easy for you to come and be a part of Junction as someone who lives down the road (even if your commute is a mission)”.

'This ain't the Roman Days'

“We think museums should get involved with what's going on now, looking at topics that young people are really interested in. There's nothing interesting about learning about the past if it has nothing to do with our present.

Be topical and include current, hard-hitting, juicy issues, even those that have been taboo in the past. When museums connect to modern issues it helps people understand more about the world around us. It also lets museums find out about what these issues mean to us too.

Our Londinium 2012 features a film made by young people looking at the importance of Londinium's amphitheatre. In response to researching the violence in Roman culture, young people speak out about the amount of street level violence they experience in their area today”.

Popping the social media bubble

“We use social networking sites for connecting with our friends, but please don't rely on us finding out about your museum just through social media.

That's not to say social media isn't relevant to us; it's just being used in a different way. Social media is still a great opportunity for a museum to work together with young people.

As part of the Museum of London's Gladiator Games event, we worked with a digital media training company and the communications team so we had the skills to plan, capture and share the event as it happened. We set up our very own tweeting gladiator @MaxTweeticus and created a Tumblr account to upload audio interviews and behind the scenes photos on the day. Any of us on that project now have the skills to go away and do our own thing online, and we found that once we knew how social media channels work, and what's out there, we were more likely to find out about other museums online.

Treat your museum like a YouTube video – it needs to go viral

If you want to attract young people to your museum then the best advertising you will ever get is one young person recommending you to their friends. Getting young people talking about museums is a sure-fire way to get more of us in.

Think about what makes your museum exciting for young adults. Make it a talking point. And most importantly, GET SOME YOUNG PEOPLE INVOLVED (why not do a project with them?). If our friends are going to museums, we might want to go too, so make your museum something teenagers go out to – a place to be.

Our Londinium 2012 showcases the work of over one hundred young Londoners. If each participant tells their friends to come along and check out their work when we open, we'll have started the chain. We look forward to spreading that word…”

Why should peace museums be interested in youth?

The answer seems obvious; to mobilize youth towards a culture of peace and reconciliation – for them to imagine and work towards a future without war. How achievable is this?

In 2014 there is almost an overload of peace initiatives and events to ‘commemorate’ the 100 year anniversary of World War I. Vienna-based journalist Jacob Moss reported on one such initiative: the Discover Peace Trail. In his on-line magazine he reported: “Vienna's history is typically connotated with war, but we follow a tour that looks at its’ past and present of peace. We join one of Vienna's newest tours, the Discover Peace tour, where we learn about those to whom 'peace' is more than a buzz word on a t-shirt. We often celebrate heroes of wars but those who resist war often fall into history’s black hole”.

The Discover Peace Trail, is a concept of peace which relies on democracy, civil society, self-confident participation and courage.  Peace-trails have been established in Berlin, Budapest, Manchester, Paris, The Hague, Torino and Vienna. The aim of this project “Discover Peace in Europe” is to create stronger awareness of the importance of critical participation and of the relevance of civil rights movements. Peace activist and academic Dr. Susanna Jalka who is the force behind this project was interviewed by Jacob Moss.

“Yes” reported Jacob Moss “we are aware that these days (peace) is a word that has become as sweet, fluffy and impotent as the word 'love'. However, to some the word still resonates with hope”. Indeed when Jacob Moss followed the Discover Peace Trail around the streets of Vienna he was reminded that “on this city’s seemingly ordinary streets, extraordinary things have been born from the courageous thoughts and actions of a few who dared to imagine a peaceful world. To whom „peace was more than a buzz word on a T-shirt”.

The capacity of youth to be autonomous social agents and their propensity towards gathering and forming group associations poses both threats and opportunities.  The threat is that youth may be easily mobilized to participate in disruptive action that leads to conflict and violence, particularly as a by-product of entrenched and endemic social challenges such as high unemployment rates.  As a result, particularly in societies emerging out of protracted conflict where stability is absolutely necessary for social reconstruction, targeting youth as agents of peace-building takes on particular importance.

An important motivation for including youth in peace-building largely rejects the idea that youth should be targeted as a result of the threat they may pose and contends instead that youth are actually characterized by specific qualities and features that are particularly conducive to peace-building.  In this view, young people are understood as unique contributors, indeed the likely leaders of successful peace-building efforts; and they are, in fact, the primary enablers of social change.  The traits of creativity, openness to new experiences, and desire for change, combined with the energy and vitality that we associate with youth, are all elements of the distinctive capabilities of youth to build peace.

Youth are interested in issues and ideas: they vote and are therefore potential carriers of peace ideals to influence government policies and the majority will be parents and educators of future generations.

In developing programmes for youth, Peace Museums need to take into account that youth tend to make spontaneous choices on what to do on the day with visits triggered by other factors such as friends or relatives. They generally socialize with peers and sometimes family - some won't go if they don't have anyone to go with.

  • 15-19yrs are more likely to do things in same sex groups
  • 22-24yrs are more likely to socialize as couples
  • there is a gender dimension: young males often visit museums to accompany their girlfriend/partner

Therefore, special events should be planned with their involvement including personalities from popular culture to make a Peace Museum a place to be seen. As a group they are very wary of being manipulated and need to be involved in the decision making process and in the project - they need to feel a part of it but this requires museums to be accommodating.

For, by Museums of Peace accommodating the needs, the views and the visionary power of youth they may indeed reach their ultimate objective in preventing war by contributing to the establishment of a society based on peaceful resolution of conflicts.