Located in the Plaza Juárez across from Parque Alameda, this museum sits across from the Tribunales Familiares (Family Court) and beside the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs); the physical proximity to such important government centers, while perhaps superficially, at least begins the work of furthering the museum’s mission of foregrounding tolerance and historical memory in the Mexican political and social consciousness. Since the museum draws crowds–many schoolchildren visit with their classes or come separately on assignment–the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia in fact performs an ideal of democracy by literally bringing people into political spaces, even if they are not directly engaging with politics but merely considering values of humanity and society through the museum. But what makes this museum such an ideal venue to reflect on these fundamental values is much more than it’s location; the overall design and curation is sensitive yet powerful enough to prompt open-minded assessments of our prejudices as individuals and as societies.
The overt objective of the space as a whole is to promote nonviolence, cultivate a sense of understanding of other ethnicities and cultures, and create awareness of historical memory. Strategies aligned with this mission are deployed throughout the two sections of the museum: Área Memoria and Área Tolerancia. The Área Tolerancia rooms directly prompt visitors to question the sources of their prejudices and assumptions about race and culture but even the Área Memoria galleries–that primarily contain specific historical information on genocides–also feature plaques and activities to provoke larger contemplation and discussion about the value of diversity. One of the most engaging activities that directly addressed societal prejudices regarding race and culture was in the Área Tolerancia in a section involving clips from commercials, TV shows (news programs, sitcoms, etc), and movies that illustrate how the media influences our perceptions of other ethnicities.
Because of the various curatorial strategies and design of the museum, in whichever way one chooses to experience the museum, all visitors will consider the values of historical memory and tolerance. Many visitors to the museum come with specific assignments from school that facilitate reflection on these themes, but for those visiting purely out of interest and curiosity, there are options to explore alone, use an audio guide, or take a guided tour in Spanish. The guided tour is longer than most (over 2 hours) but takes visitors through all of the rooms and involves a thoughtful discussion of terminology (clarifying what is genocide versus what is a crime against humanity), history, and is largely interactive (excepting the few short films shown throughout the tour).
Visitors are encouraged to start at the top floor of the museum in the Área Memoria, which focuses on the history of several genocides. While recent scholarship has revealed that Mexico City was not especially welcoming to Jews fleeing the Nazis, a large portion of the gallery space in the Área Memoria is dedicated to the Holocaust. There is a clear explanation of stages of the Holocaust, beginning with efforts to quantify the Aryan through anthropometry and culiminating in the “final solution” and the mechanization of killing Jews achieved in concentration camps. The Holocaust section even features a train car that was used to transport individuals to concentration camps, and as visitors walk through the car they inevitably visualize what it would have been like to be a Jew persecuted by the Nazis. Despite the low-lit galleries creating a heightened sense of drama, the coverage of the Holocaust is not reductive nor sensationalist but is rather compelling, specific, and clear.
The museum also includes smaller spaces with exhibits about the genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, and the Genocide in Darfur. These other areas are covered briefly in the tour, with the most emphasis on the genocide of Mayas in Guatemala in 1983. As a whole, the Área Memoria installation spaces feature some objects but the empahsis is on photographs and short films, all accompanied by engaging exhibit labels telling the stories of how these genocides transpired and with emphasis on complicity of various parties. My tour guide then used this charge of complicity to present a call to action to not stand idly by in the face of injustice, be it in the form of crimes against humanity or genocide or racial prejudice.
Leaving Área Memoria and entering Área Tolerancia, visitors pass through what was my favorite part of the museum: a memorial to the children killed in genocides titled “El Potencial Periodo”. The piece by Jan Hendrix was completed in 1949 and is visually striking with thousands of glass spheres (some resembled droplets or tears) suspended and reflecting light filtering through the sunny building. The accompanying plaque reads (in Spanish; translation is mine):
“El interior del espacio se resuelve en cristal para registrar, en veinte mil piezas de vidrio de forma irregular, la imposibilidad de cuantificar la pérdida de estas vidas cegadas de forma prematura. La edificación de un sitio para la conmemoración a partir del símbolo universal de la unión entre los pueblos, rescata la connotación positiva de la historia humana y hace un llamado al compromiso, la memoria, el respeto y la tolerancia”
“The interior of this space is comprised of glass to represent, through twenty thousand pieces of irregularly shaped glass, the inability to quantify the premature loss of these lives. Erecting a site for the commemoration through the universal symbol of union between peoples rescues the positive connotation of human history and calls for compromise, memory, respect, and tolerance.”
Additional Information to Plan a Visit
There are audio guides that one can borrow as well as guided tours (in Spanish only), and these are nice ways to navigate the museum. Do be warned that the guided tour lasts approximately 2 hours. The museum also has temporary exhibits (currently there is one about the student massacre in Tlatelolco in 1968), and if you plan to see the temporary show, skipping a guided tour might be the best option.
Open Tues-Fri 9am to 6pm and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 7pm.