lining up for a harsh lesson

Early Saturday afternoon in Mexico City, and the line up is long. I reluctantly position myself at the end of the line and think to myself, this is going to take longer than I thought. I cast a glance at the people in line, which runs around the corner of the building – lots of teenagers in groups of two, three, four and more, many families, and people of all ages, all anxious to get in. And this is just the line for tickets, there is a second long line to actually get inside. A pop concert? An amusement park? Celebrity appearance?

Nope, I’m in line for the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia — the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. It’s astonishing to see ordinary people lining up, including the aforementioned young people, to venture into a building that describes the Holocaust and the too numerous other genocides that took place in the 20th century. The displays are graphic and unrelenting – everything we need to know about the discrimination and hatred that fueled each and every one of these horrible crimes against humanity.

Oddly, entering the museum involves airport-level security – you hand over all bags and the contents of your pockets before walking through a metal detector. After picking up an audio guide visitors are directed to the line for the elevator to take you to the starting point on the fifth floor. From here you pass through numerous galleries that explain the events that led to the rise of Hitler, the persecution of Jews and others, and the invasion of neighbours that led to World War II. The Final Solution is vividly illustrated through text, photos, and artifacts: on display is one of the rail cars used to ship Jews across Europe to extermination camps.

We’re not let off the hook too soon, however, because the next series of galleries takes visitors into the dark centre of seven genocides with more graphic details and images, and artifacts, including the weapons used by perpetrators and the clothing of victims. Horrifying in every way.

Then comes a series of galleries that explore challenges around immigration and migrant workers, especially those from Central America but mostly on their way to the US, updated with several video screens that show the speech by Trump where he talks about Mexico “not sending their best people” to the USA. A temporary display focuses on high rates of femicide in Mexico and there are many references to the high numbers of people that go missing in Mexico in general. Finally, there are several display areas that promote tolerance, respect for human rights, and taking action to change the world.

Sure, there were a few kids disturbingly taking selfies in front of large photos of concentration camps, but most people, young and old, were respectful and thoughtfully engaged with the exhibitions. I continue to be struck by how many people were in a museum like this on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I’ve visited several human rights museums around the world, and usually there are no line-ups, no crowds, no teenagers. My hope is that the young people working their way through the galleries were impressed in the right way, and will find their way to promoting and living tolerance, social justice, and human rights despite the significant challenges described in this museum.

(Don visited MYT in March, 2017)

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