JOHANNESBURG — This stark, walled complex in South Africa's largest city feels like a throwback. At its entrance, guards issue two kinds of tickets: for "whites" and "non-whites." Then visitors enter through segregated turnstiles.
"We usually give black people the white cards, and to white people we give the black cards," explains tour guide Allegra Mkhabele. "So at least at the time you step in the museum, you have that feeling of 'Wow, it was like this' - that feeling of physical separation."
This jarring introduction to the world of segregation - courtesy of the Apartheid Museum - often touches raw nerves, and raises uncomfortable questions. Occasionally visitors get angry and leave. Many are shocked by such "racism" - even in an apartheid museum.
And that's the point. Around the world, museums have increasingly become places where people turn to gain deeper understanding of past horrors. Whatever their focus, they're often conceived as places that honor victims, help societies to heal, and force people to examine their own responses to contemporary evils. Unfortunately, they haven't always lived up to their billing, critics say.
Nevertheless, the push to commemorate tragedy has gained momentum.
Since 1947, when Poland reopened Auschwitz, where Nazis killed more than 1 million people, mostly Jews, at least 150 other Holocaust museums have opened worldwide. Russia has gulag museums. Goree Island, the site where slave ships departed Africa for the Americas, is a museum. So is Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
Plans exist for a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., set to open in 2007. At least two other major slavery museums are in the works, as well as a $110 million underground railroad museum, scheduled to open in Cincinnati in 2004. A number of smaller museums are also opening in the US, says Bill Gwaltney, former president of the African-American Association of Museums.
But the fact that slavery museums are only now being built reflects the extent to which slavery is still an unresolved issue in American society, Mr. Gwaltney says.
South Africa's Apartheid Museum, after all, opened seven years after the fall of apartheid in 1994. Slavery in the US, however, was abolished 140 years ago.
Not everyone likes the idea of memorializing such tragedies. Such institutions often fail to provide thoughtful context, says Ronald Hilton, president of the World Association of International Studies at Stanford University. They too often stir up antagonism by presenting one group as good and another as evil.
"If slavery in the US were put into a worldwide historical context, fine, but it should also include other forms of quasi-slavery such as indenture or serfdom," Professor Hilton says. "We do not want to get into a situation where blacks are depicted as the only victims, just as Jews are not the only victims of genocide."
Vonita Foster, executive director of the Slavery Museum, says that the museum is needed precisely because the full story of slavery has never been told. "We would hope that most people would encourage the interpretation and exhibition of the rich history that enslaved Africans brought to America against their will," she says. "Their struggles revealed in songs and in the slaves' own words the incredible rich cultural tradition and pioneering contributions slaves made to this country. All Americans should know and appreciate this history."
The Apartheid Museum sometimes raises feelings of anger and denial, says Christopher Till, the museum's director. Still, telling the apartheid story reveals how miraculous it is that the country now enjoys peace and democracy, he adds.
Like the Holocaust, apartheid has come to symbolize the disturbing potential for humans to commit evil acts. It has scarred South Africa, pulled families apart, and destroyed communities. Generations of black students fought and died to end apartheid; generations of white soldiers were conscripted to quell their uprisings.
Inside the museum, one is confronted with the grim realities and tragic absurdities of apartheid. Old news clippings reveal how bureaucratic whims led to members of the same family being classified as belonging to different racial groups and forced to live apart. TV monitors broadcast apartheid propaganda, interviews with antiapartheid leaders, and graphic footage of protests. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, and the images and sound clips grow increasingly dissonant, reflecting the escalating violence and discord of the 1970s and '80s.
In one room, hangman's nooses dangle from the ceiling. It was here a recent visitor to the museum learned the fate of four of his relatives when he found their names on a list of names of political prisoners who were executed, Ms. Mkhabele says.
The final exhibit is devoted to the Constitution. In a stark room adorned only with pillars and a pile of stones, Mkhabele tells visitors they may add a stone to the pile. "By doing that you commit yourselves to saying, what's back in there is the past. You don't forget it, but you do forgive," she tells them. A few are too angry to take her advice, she says, but most do.