“ Address: 17, Avenue de la Paix / 1202 Geneva / Switzerland „
When I was a child I would accompany my mother when she did her annual bit for the Red Cross, knocking on doors in our village and giving a tiny paper flag and a pin in return for a cash donation. I have no idea how my mother came to volunteer for the Red Cross in those days and I'm sure I had no idea what the Red Cross did other than perhaps lend out a wheelchair to someone temporarily in need of one. As I grew older and became more interested in international affairs, I came to learn how wide reaching the work of the Red Cross is but it was at the Museum of the International Red Cross in Geneva that I came to understand just how significant the organisation and its achievements are.
As you wander round the city of Geneva you see lots of plaques indicating locations of significance in the formation of the Red Cross but the museum itself is situated near the United Nations building. It's a walkable distance from the main train station in Geneva (20-25 minutes with sights to see along the way) but if you're strapped for time or simply don't wish to walk, the museum is easy reached on public transport. The entrance is partially hidden as it looks like the pathway to the doors has been cut into the hillside, in a startling echo of a World War 1 trench. A modernistic canopy overhangs the entrance and in the courtyard there's a very striking sculpture that symbolises the ongoing fight for the worldwide observation of human rights.
Although this is Switzerland admission is not hugely expensive but there are various ways of saving money. We were staying in a hostel and were able to get a small discount simply by showing our door swipes; this also entitled us to free of hire of audio guides. If you are put off by the expense I would say three things. The first is to take a look at what you might expect to pay at other visitor attractions in the city and you'll see that this isn't expensive in comparison, and second, this is a large and wide-ranging exhibition and as such you do get excellent value for money. (Compare this with what you'd pay to look at a load of waxworks in Madame Tussauds's in London!)
This is a large exhibition but it is all on one floor and there are frequently places to sit if you need to rest your legs. The exhibition is presented as a combination of texts, photographs and film footage; the audio guide does echo some of the texts which is good because the lighting is rather dim throughout most of the exhibition space which made it difficult to read in some areas.
The story of the Red Cross is told chronologically starting with the Battle of Solferino in 1859; it was here that Henry Dunant - not actively involved but merely passing nearby at the time - was inspired to find a way to support those affected by war. In the early days this was in the form of medical aid to those injured on the battlefield but gradually the scope became wider to include help for those left homeless or displaced by war and support for prisoners of war. It wasn't until much later that the organisation became involved in disaster relief, the work we probably first bring to mind when we think about the work of the International Red Cross (and, of course, the Red Crescent, as the organisation is known in Islamic countries; for sake of ease I refer to it only as the Red Cross in this review), and later still efforts to clear landmines in post-war situations.
The exhibition begins with a display that looks at a few philosophical ideas of compassion and peace before moving on to a clever presentation telling the story of how Dunant's ideas developed. This was in the form of a movie that was made up of drawings against a soundtrack of artillery, battle cries and the cries of help of the wounded. There's no narration and no subtitles, and such absence makes this presentation rather impressive in the way it manages to convey the story. At Solferino Dunant observed how many casualties were left to die on the battlefield because there was no way of getting them out of there to safety; many of them could have been saved had they been taken to somewhere they could have been treated. Dunant returned to Geneva from where he started to campaign internationally for certain conditions to be observed in the arena of battle: this led to the establishment of the Geneva Convention, and, later, to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
One of the areas of the museum comprises a cluster of wooden chests of drawers like those in old fashioned libraries; the cards in these drawers, however, are a catalogue of soldiers taken prisoner during the First World War. There are seven million records in this archive alone. Seeing all the cards together in one place, rather than just a sample, really emphasised the hugeness of the task.
Where there are texts they are presented in several languages including English but the most important element of the exhibition is the collection of photographic images that prove that a single image can speak a thousand words. These images come from all over the world - starving children in Ethiopia, children fleeing from burning villages in Vietnam, child soldiers in Rwanda, soldiers being dragged from the trenches in the First World War. A 'Wall of Time' takes you through all the conflicts that have taken place around the world since the Red Cross was founded. It is incredible to see the proliferation of wars in the second half of the twentieth century.
Another installation that will stay with me was a recreated cell, measuring just three by two metres, in which an International Red Cross worker had come across 17 prisoners. To illustrate what that must have been like, there are 17 sets of adult footprints painted on the floor. This and other installations remind us that the violation of human rights is not uncommon and goes on still around the world.
It is hard not to be affected by this exhibition; it is presented in a non-judgmental way but the message is loud and clear. Above the admission desk there is a quote from Dostoyevsky: "Everyone is responsible to everyone else for everything", words which instantly stuck in my mind. Visiting the Red Cross Museum in Geneva is a sobering experience; at times it's uncomfortable and challenging but entirely worthwhile and something I'd recommend to any adult visitors to the city. It's not really a family attraction and I wouldn't recommend it to visitors coming with young children, but young teens upwards will be able to take something positive from the experience.
The museum is currently closed for renovations and will re-open in 2013, giving you just enough time to save for a trip.
At the time we visited admission for adults was 10 Swiss Francs. I dont know whether this will increase following the refurbishments. It is interesting to note that no money raised for the work of the Red Cross was used to create this museum.
~ Confessing My Ignorance ~
Like many people, I've never given much thought to the Red Cross. It's not that I'm ignorant of world affairs but it's the sort of organisation many of us take for granted. The 'Geneva Conventions' are similar; a phrase we all trot out whenever someone somewhere is doing something that commonsense says is naughty but not something I really know much about. Other than a vague sense that when the four horsemen of the apocalypse saddle up and head off to visit some godforsaken part of the world you can guarantee that the Red Cross will be close behind, I can honestly say it was an organisation I took for granted on a massive scale. I guess I viewed the Red Cross as a sort of souped-up St John's Ambulance hanging out at wars instead of football matches and country fairs. With ignorance on this scale, a visit to this museum was a long overdue educational wake-up call on the history of this humanitarian organisation.
Note - Please keep in mind that whenever I refer in this review to the 'Red Cross', I mean the Red Cross AND the Red Crescent.
~Getting There ~
We were on a bank holiday weekend trip to visit some Spanish friends who now live in Geneva. Therefore we were lucky enough to not have to think too much about the logistics of getting around. We just trotted along behind them. We took a number 8 bus from the central train station to the bus stop called Appia. From the stop it's a very short walk uphill to the 'Musee International de la Croix Rouge et Croissant Rouge' or for the Anglophones, the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
~ Old and New ~
The organisation's head-quarters sit high on a hillside in a grand old white building with the letters CICR picked out on the sign on the roof. In contrast, the museum looks nothing like the building you see from the road. It's a modern construction with lots of glass and nothing to signify the organisation's long history. At the entrance you'll find a courtyard with a small Louvre-style pyramid, a statue of a group of hooded captives and a marker on the ground that was laid in the presence of Raisa Gorbachev and Nancy Reagan back in the 1980s. I assumed that's when the building was opened. Above the courtyard therePictures
We entered through a rotating door and found the ticket desk directly in front of us. There was a cafeteria to one side which was closed (it was a Sunday) and a temporary exhibition of photographs beyond it. On the wall behind the ticket desk was inscribed a large quotation in French which - with my limited schoolgirl French - I translated as 'Each person is responsible before everyone for everything'. Now how's that for sense of personal responsibility? I'd like to see that in the House of Commons next time they are debating MP's 'allowances'.
~ The Exhibition ~
Admission to the museum costs 10 Swiss Francs which is about 6 pounds, give or take a bit. There are free museums in Geneva but I honestly didn't feel that this should be one - when you visit the museum of a charity, it's appropriate to pay for the privilege. The guy on the ticket desk was very charming, asking us where we were from and in which language we wanted our guide pamphlets.
From the foyer the exhibition is down the stairs - in fact the entire museum is underground like a big bunker. The first exhibit is a sculpture with six large transparent screens printed with writings about humanitarian respect in six different languages. These are suspended like sails above a large square filled with pieces of slate. Surrounding this exhibit are giant photographs of three of the people who were involved in humanitarian efforts before the Red Cross was formed and who inspired the founder, Henry Dunant. These included nurse Florence Nightingale and surgeon Nikolai Pirogov for their work in the Crimea, and American Clara Barton who arranged medical services during the Civil War. Another slide show exhibition tells of famous historic humanitarians including Alexander the Great, the Good Samaritan and Saladdin.
Next we moved into a small cinema showing pictures about the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Fortunately we'd had a long wait to get into this part of the exhibition and we'd had plenty of time to read the blurb about the battle beforehand. If I hadn't I'm really not sure that I could have followed the thread of the show which bounces artistically around the story of how businessman Henry Dunant found himself on the scene at the time of a battle that left 40,000 killed or wounded. He mobilised local people to give basic medical support and was so moved by what he saw that he wrote about the battle in a memoir called "A Memory of Solferino" in which he proposed the setting up of an organisation to offer relief at such times. When the video finishes, the walls on which the pictures were projected draw back to reveal a brightly lit room with a statue of Dunant sitting writing at his desk. This room also contains information about the men who set up the first committee for the relief of wounded soldiers and established the First Geneva Convention.
~ The Early Days ~
From here we moved into a room full of items dating back to the earliest days of the Red Cross. These included early arm-bands and medical kits and gory surgical kits for battlefield amputations. There's something strange about seeing the craftsmanship that must have gone into making tortoiseshell-handled knives destined to sever mangled limbs. This room also sees the beginning of the time line that stretches all the way around the exhibition and records major events since the beginning of the Red Cross. For each year, the wall records the significant events of that year in three panels; the first shows the armed conflicts which claimed more than 10,000 lives, the second shows the natural disasters and diseases that took 1000 or more and the final panel records steps in the history of the Red Cross including the setting up of country organisations and the signing of major treaties. At the moment the time wall stops at 1991 and the Red Cross have a policy of leaving time to reflect on the major events before adding them to the wall.
In the next section there's a large symbolic display of the prisoner of war (POW) records from World War One - bank after bank of archive boxes with hand written labels, contain the details of 2 million prisoners. WWI had been the beginning of the Red Cross's involvement with POWs as they hadn't previously been protected by the Geneva Conventions. Similarly we learned in a later section that the Red Cross had been unable to intervene with the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War since the Geneva Conventions at that time had not covered civilians.
It's not as easy as it perhaps should be to follow your way around the exhibition and I'm sure I was hopping back and forth in time between the various displays and could have used a few guiding arrows to keep me on track. I had the familiar sense of not going in the right direction which assaults me every time I set food in an IKEA - another organisation with a big cross but not so honourable in its work. We learned about the two world wars through old film footage and displays. There were Red Cross postcards from both conflicts showing how the nurses of the service had been portrayed as a cross between ministering angels and erotic temptresses. We also saw pictures of people packing up their Red Cross parcels to send to soldiers and marvelled at the logistical support that must have been required to get a box of soap and socks to your loved one. We saw vintage film footage of the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of World War II which led to the Geneva Convention of 1949 which enabled the organisation to intervene and support civilians.
It's not all war and conflict though; nature has a pretty long history of making life rotten too. We saw footage of volcanic eruptions, land slides, famines and epidemics, all of which must have kept the Red Cross busy.
~ The Red Cross Today ~
The final section of the exhibition brought us to modern times under five themes - overcome, improve, rehabilitate, protect and link. Each theme had a room to illustrate the organisation's work with 'Overcome' showing a store room with all the typical materials that the Red Cross provide after a disaster. 'Improve' covered areas such as their work with AIDS sufferers and homeless people. The 'Rehabilitate' room was particularly moving, containing a selection of false legs and a frame for helping people to learn to walk as well as posters helping people to identify landmines and explosives. 'Protect' is an 8 foot by 6 foot which represents a cell where they found 17 prisoners all crammed in together in contravention of human rights legislation. Finally the 'Link' room has walls that are literally covered in thousands of photos of numbered children from Rwanda all of whom needed to be reunited with their families after the genocide.
Our visit took about an hour and a half and we stopped to look at pretty much all the filmshows along the way. If it could be considered appropriate to say we 'enjoyed' the museum I would but perhaps it's more fitting to say we were very moved by what we saw and felt a lot less ignorant coming out than we were going in. I learned a lot more than I'd expected to and I'd definitely recommend a visit if you find yourself in Geneva.
International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum
17, Avenue de la Paix
Note - no photography is allowed inside the exhibition