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A Reminder of Our Global Responsibilities
Musee de la Croix Rouge et du Croissant Rouge (Geneva, Switzerland)
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Musee de la Croix Rouge et du Croissant Rouge (Geneva, Switzerland)
Advantages: A thought-provoking experience; well curated exhibition
Disadvantages: Some may find it too uncomfortable and challenging
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.
Summary: If you do only one thing in Geneva, make it this
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