Faculty Books
The Open Grave: Memory and Monument

The Open Grave: Memory and Monument

Tawia Baidoe Ansah, Florida International University College of Law

Chapter in In the Shadow of Genocide: Memory, Justice, and Transformation within Rwanda, Transitional Justice: Memorials in Times of Transition.


Tawia B. Ansah

Matt Kane

Stephanie Wolfe


In a brief article critical of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, Amy Sodaro cites to James E. Young, an expert on memorials, for the following proposition:

Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember. In shouldering the memory-work, monuments may relieve viewers of their memory burden.1

Sodaro then notes, ‘In Rwanda, this could be even more apt’. She goes on to describe the extent to which the Kigali Memorial ‘not only bear[s] the burden of memory of the genocide, it sets it aside as a distinct event with a beginning, middle, and end. This takes the urgency and connection out of what is happening in the region and shatters the connection between past and future’.2

In this chapter I review the genocide museum memorial in Kigali with the issues raised by Sodaro in mind. In particular, the question whether, or how, memorial ‘takes the connection and urgency out of what is happening now’, implicates the efficacy of monumental memorials to events such as genocide. Implicitly, the alternative to memorializing an event within a monumental form would be memorial work represented as porous and perspectival, its form – rather than its effects – more diffused and labile. The question then would be whether or to what extent such amorphous memorialization would engender the connection that is allegedly severed by monumental memorial, the implication being that the work of memory would be undertaken as a process rather than an end product, the ‘monument’. There are risks in either form of memorial: on the one hand, monumental memorial may be ‘assigned’ the burden of memory to the detriment of memory work, the denial of which may risk a resurgence of the violence that led to and characterized the traumatic events. On the other hand, a more nuanced or ambivalent rather than univocal/monumental memorializing effort may risk reliving the trauma and trapping one within an unremitting past. This chapter examines the Kigali museum memorial as an example of the monumental form of memorializing events such as genocide. I review how this memorial came to be, its particular narrative project, and how it navigates the risks inherent to the form. As both a cultural artifact and a political statement, I compare it to other artistic monumental memorials in different modes. Specifically, I’m interested in the ways that monumental memorial has the capacity to critique its own univocality. That is, despite the closed universe ostensibly projected, leading to the conclusions and critiques offered by Sodaro and Young, monumental memorials may nevertheless open up spaces for counter-memorial disruptions. In the case of the Kigali memorial, I posit that such a space is created or implied by the ‘open grave’ motif within the museum grounds, an artifact both integral to the whole exhibit – as it references aspects internal to the museum displays as well as the actual sites of massacre around the country – yet peripheral to it, as it sits outside the museum memorial proper and its construction of events. Part I describes the Kigali Center’s memorial, particularly the open gravesite on its grounds. Using literary and cultural examples, I reflect upon the open grave concept in relation to memorials. Part II considers the open grave concept in relation to monumental art, using the work of French classical painter Nicolas Poussin as an example. I conclude that the burden or the work of memory may inhere within the critical but dislocated, abstracted moments within what is represented as the official narrative, monumental artifact, or authoritative memorial to historical events.


1 YOUNG, JAMES E., 1993. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press (citation omitted), in AMY SODARO, “Remembering for the Future? Genocide Remembrance at the Kigali Memorial Center,” available online at http://www.irmgard-coninx-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Memory_Politics/Workshop_1/Sodaro_Essay.pdf, at 7.

2 SODARO, op. cit. 2, at 7-8.