Hope and human resilience are the guiding themes of the new permanent exhibit at Geneva’s International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, which will finally re-open its doors this week after a nearly two-year makeover.
“It was important to have the museum be a museum of hope, to show that it is possible to rebuild a new life after living through something very dramatic,” director Roger Mayou told AFP after showing off the revamped exhibition to journalists ahead of the official reopening on May 18.
The new museum, flanked by the ICRC’s Geneva headquarters, shows little resemblance to the one that shut its doors at the end of June, 2011.
The 20-million Swiss franc ($21-million, 16-million-euro) renovation added 600 square metres to the permanent exhibition space and a brand-new temporary exhibition space stretching across 500 square metres that will open next year.
While the previous permanent exhibit, in place since the museum first opened in 1988, guided visitors through a traditional chronology of the history of humanitarian action, the new exhibit, dubbed “The Humanitarian Adventure”, is thematic and almost fully interactive.
“In the age of the Internet and instantaneous information, we asked ourselves what can a museum offer that is different from the information you find online” about the Red Cross and its 150-year history? Mayou asked, pointing out that the answer was “an emotional experience.”
To convey the main idea of resilience, 12 interactive witnesses for instance guide visitors through the exhibit, with their projected images jumping to life when touched and describing their journeys from darkness towards the light.
“Because of a land mine explosion, I lost my two legs,” testifies Najmuddin Helal, the head of ICRC’s orthopaedic centre in Kabul, steadying himself with a cane.
After five years of despair he received help and physical rehabilitation and decided to put his own experience to good use, he says: “I know what it means to lose a limb… I can give the dignity that I have regained to others as well.”
The witnesses, who also include a former child soldier from Sudan, a dentist who helped identify victims after Japan’s 2011 tsunami, and former international war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, punctuate each of the exhibit’s three sections, covering the themes, “Defending Human Dignity,” “Restoring Family Links” and “Reducing Natural Risks.”
The sections are each presented through the distinct designs of three internationally renowned architects.
To enter the “Family Links” section, Burkina Faso architect Diebedo Francis Kere for instance forces visitors to pass through a dark corridor obstructed by a thick curtain of chains, thrusting them “into the heart of family tragedies which begin during conflict situations,” the museum said.
Once visitors have wrestled past the last cold metal chain, they enter aisle upon aisle of glassed-in floor-to-ceiling cabinets containing millions of yellowed index cards documenting the fates of civilians and prisoners of war during World War I, before coming face to face with a towering hempcrete wall covered with photographs of Rwandan children used to help reunite them with their families following the 1994 genocide.
The “Natural Risks” section, sculpted with waves of cardboard tubes by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, meanwhile gives visitors a chance to test their disaster preparedness skills with an interactive game requiring players to plant mangroves, build shelters, reserve stocks of food and organise evacuations in the aim of saving the most possible lives when the hurricane hits.
And in the “Human Dignity” section, created by Brazilian Gringo Cardia, a plaster sculpture of Red Cross founder Henry Dunant sitting at a desk with the founding ideas of the organisation moving beneath his feet is followed by a massive plaster foot symbolically trampling on a large screen filled with images of war, destruction and humiliation.
That section ends on a more hopeful note, though, with a high-tech interactive wall covered in strings of different coloured light, that change colour and direction when touched.
“That is what humanitarian actions are: not to be happy with a given situation but to do something to change it,” Mayou explained.