Why you should care
These museums point to a more human side of war.
In this original series, Extreme Museums, join OZY for a look at some of the world’s weirdest and wildest exhibitions. Read more.
When it comes to war, for every massacre, atrocity and firestorm, there are Michelangelos, aqueducts and For Whom the Bell Tolls. War has always had its museums and memorials telling stories of progress, but not every artillery-accentuated park conveys its poignancy. Here’s your guide to the museums (other than the famous Holocaust Museum) that paint a three-dimensional, humanized portrait of what’s often one of humanity’s most hellish experiences.
The War Remnants Museum
The West has pretty much sanitized its image of the Vietnam War and accompanying atrocities, but this Ho Chi Minh museum does not. From the picture of a GI hoisting a beheaded Vietcong soldier to the omission of VC war crimes, the museum tells a government-sanctioned history of the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. While the museum’s propagandistic narrative has to be taken with a kilo of salt, it’s one that’s important to listen to — particularly by Western ears. At its most powerful, the exhibits capture America’s plodding legacy in Vietnam — like the unexploded ordnance that still make Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos minefields. Throughout, you’ll see heart-wrenching images of children affected by Agent Orange and atrocities, like the My Lai Massacre, captured by the intimate eyes of Vietnamese photographers.
Fee: 15,000 dong ($0.66). Open daily until 6:00 p.m.
Unit 731 Museum
Until you’ve visited China’s Unit 731 Museum (named after Japan’s World War II human experimental research group), you’ve known but a hair of cruelty. China began restoring the lab in the early 2000s — during the Bush administration, amid growing tensions with Japan, to memorialize the latter’s crimes — and it has been recently expanded and refinished. Here, in the city of Harbin, at 25 Xijiang Dajie, Pingfang District, in the shadow of an incinerator’s smokestack, you can read the testimonies of guards who spoke up about military scientists who hand-waved unprecedented torture under the banner of medical research: mass rapings to study venereal diseases and prisoners infected with biological weapons designed in violation of the Geneva Convention. With graphic photos (and, to a lesser extent, dioramas), the museum pulls its punches. However, the museum’s personalization (and its indictment of America’s cover-up) of 731’s brutality certainly doesn’t — making it one of the most compelling and unique exhibitions of perverted violence you’ll likely ever see.
Fee: Free. Hours: Daily until 4 p.m.
The Canadian War Museum covers every major conflict Canada has been invested in (War of 1812, the South African War, World War I and II, the Cold War). What makes it noteworthy is its deft touch of pathos and humanity — emphasizing participants’ perspective, often artistically. The museum’s exhibits on “Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World” and Native American conflicts show this best. The War of 1812, for example, is told from four perspectives: Canada, America, Britain and the country’s indigenous peoples. Alongside relics from colonial forces, this award-winning exhibit also presents artifacts from major indigenous groups, as well as their weaponry and accounts of their wartime experiences, framing their fight as a desperate gamble for survival. As the museum’s director of exhibitions, Caroline Dromaguet, tells OZY, “The objects on exhibition often belonged to the specific person whose story is told. This allows visitors to connect with the history on a personal level and perhaps make sense of their own experiences.”
Fee: About $13.60. Hours: Daily until 5 p.m.