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A museum with a world perspective

 

Imitation food vouchers, a ciborium made out of bread, prison chains, an amputation saw. These are just a few of the 50,000 items preserved by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva.

 

SINCE opening in 1988, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum has accumulated a wealth of objects and documents retracing the history of the world’s first humanitarian organization from its beginnings to the present day. To achieve this, the museum has sought the support of various Movement actors, who have responded by entrusting it with items of historical importance, as well as tangible manifestations of their humanitarian action.

Among them, the International Federation has deposited a number of collections, including a unique series of more than 6,000 posters produced by National Societies between 1945 and 1990. Emanating from more than 120 countries, the posters illustrate the Movement’s universality and document the many and varied activities developed by the National Societies, from blood collection and disease prevention to recruitment of volunteers and first aid.

The posters have been a feature of the “From the archives” section of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine, as well as regularly taking pride of place in the museum’s exhibitions. Presentations on a variety of themes — accident prevention, smoking, fund-raising or religious images — provide a fascinating insight into the work of the National Societies in the second half of the 20th century.

Posters are by no means the only documents conserved. The museum collects stamps, photographs and films, as well as work instruments and relief items. The card index created by the International Prisoner of War Agency in 1914–1918 and previously kept in the ICRC archives is one of the jewels of the permanent exhibition. Objects of historical interest, attesting to the early activities of the Red Cross Red Crescent, are complemented by a range of contemporary exhibits demonstrating the Movement’s more recent action, from a sack of rice and blood bag to a collection box and first-aid kit.

Labours of love

The museum also prides itself on its unique collection of objects given by beneficiaries, mainly detainees, to those who brought them assistance. Side by side are pieces as disparate as a model of a mosque made by a Palestinian inmate, a painting by a Khmer refugee, an embroidered mat from a Salvadorian community and a kerosene stove made by an Indonesian detainee. These tokens of gratitude are a moving testimony to the close bonds forged between the givers and receivers of aid. Often made out of recycled materials, they reveal an ingenuity and determination on the part of their creators and offer a glimpse of their harsh living conditions. The collection was initially assembled for a temporary exhibition in 1992 and has been added to over the years mainly by gifts from ICRC delegates and other Movement staff.

Most of the museum’s treasures are kept in storage according to strict conservation standards, in order to ensure their long-term preservation. However, their safe-keeping is not an end in itself. It is also so that they can be put on public display, whether through the museum’s permanent exhibition, temporary exhibitions, publications or the website (www.micr.org). Starting with this issue, Red Cross Red Crescent will give its readers a chance to see some of the museum’s prize possessions, items both unusual and commonplace that will be displayed on its back cover, alternating with the posters.

Today’s heritage for tomorrow

The museum serves not only as a repository of the Movement’s rich heritage, but also as a testament to its current action, so that it may be preserved for future generations. To this end, the museum has an ambitious policy of collecting items representing every aspect of ongoing humanitarian activities. Although located in Geneva, close to the headquarters of the ICRC and the International Federation, the museum seeks to reflect the Movement in all its geographical and cultural diversity, bringing together objects, documents and images from every continent and examples of its work both in times of war and in times of peace. It endeavours to build links with National Societies and solicits contributions from them — posters, photographs, films, relief materials or eye-witness accounts from humanitarian workers and beneficiaries.

With the help of everyone in the Movement — in particular the National Societies — the museum can continue to build on and enhance its valuable collections, which constitute our common heritage.

 


©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

The collections in figures

• 200 countries represented
• 11,000 posters
• 9,000 photographs
• 3,000 objects
• 2,000 films
• 25,000 stamps
• 10,000 medals


Medicine chest used by Dr Patay while serving with the French navy during the Franco-German war, 1870-1871. Collection IMCR (Patay family bequest).
©INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS AND RED CRESCENT MUSEUM

Rocking chair

“During one of my last visits, a detainee presented me with this little chair, typical of his country, saying: ‘Since we can’t offer you a comfortable seat among us, I hope that this chair will relieve your tiredness!’

“And that was how it was: during the visits, the delegates went from cell to cell, but there was never any furniture to sit on, only beds and mattresses. The chair was made out of black and white threads unpicked one by one from the sacks containing relief items — powdered milk, soap, toothpaste — brought by the ICRC for the prisoners.”

An ICRC delegate’s account in a temporary exhibition of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva, entitled Objets de silence. Articles made by prison and camp inmates 1900–1992.

©INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS AND RED CRESCENT MUSEUM

Patrick Auderset
Patrick Auderset is project manager, acquisitions and preservation, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum.

 

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