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Bearing Witness at the Son My Memorial

The Son My Memorial in Vietnam is a direct example of the “memory boom”- the emergence of sites of memory depicting scarring events within academia and society during the 20th century. The memorial was built in 1978, ten years after the My Lai massacre, during which hundreds of Vietnamese citizens were brutally murdered, and is situated on the actual area of the massacre. Bullet holes can still be seen in the palm trees and the names of victims are inscribed on a plaque near the foundations of the house in which they once lived. The way leading up to the museum is next to the canal in which many of the lifeless bodies were dumped. The position of the Son My memorial is of significant importance, as it can have an unimaginable impact on visitors. Not only is it educational to be able to walk around the original grounds, but it also allows the visitor to be emotionally transported into time. The damage becomes conceivable thus allowing the visitor to bear witness.

During the La Pietra Dialogue panel introduction by Dr. J. Apsel, an important question regarding the geographic locations of museums and memorials was raised: “How are these museums and sites of struggle and suffering situated?” How can a memorial be built to provide solace and community after a horrific event and avoid taking on a harsh political stance? This is a question often posed during the planning of a memorial, as a way to restore dignity to a shattered community. The significance of the location of Son My museum is one that is replicated in other museums and memorials that address remembrance of traumatic experiences, such as the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Placing museums in meaningful locations often makes the memory of the traumatic event more enduring in the community, as it serves as a constant reminder of what happened. This can often offer a place for solace and healing. It can also, however, become a place prone to PTSD and discord between survivors. This was brought to light when a Vietnamese survivor refused to forgive an American veteran who had taken part in the massacre. The survivor justified his feelings of anger and trauma by stating that he may have been one of the men who killed his family.

The Son My Memorial depicts the scarring damage war crimes and massacres can have on a community generation after generation. The talk led by Dr. Roy Tamashiro was powerful enough to send shivers down my spine without having visited the museum yet. I was surprised to learn about the My Lai massacre because I had never heard about it before in any of my American History classes. I think this shows how quickly the assailant country will try cover up the wounds it has inflicted upon others. I think an obvious improvement that could be made to provide more profound healing in both countries would be a twinning with an American city and My Lai, as is the case of the Prato and Ebensee Deportation museum.

Some insight I have gained from this La Pietra Dialogue was that recovery can be a slippery slope. It is unclear when and how to make a memorial or museum after a catastrophic event. Many experts grapple with the subject. Some kind of solidarity must be rapidly shown towards the broken community, but it must also be incorporated into contemporary history without incorporating politics. I never would have thought that museums would confront such controversial matters. The My Lai massacre deeply moved me, and I am interested in visiting the site and providing answers to the questions that have arisen within me after this talk.

Lucie Ufheil is a Liberal Studies Freshman at NYU Florence. She was born in Switzerland and speaks French, German, and English. Lucie enjoys learning about and discovering new countries and their communities, especially their social and cultural aspects.