Switzerland: Face to face with human pain

By Rosemarie North

The impact of tragedy is made real to Rosemarie North at Geneva's Red Cross museum.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva.

The walls in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva have a familiar feel. They're warm and curved. But the subject, risk, is unsettling.

The walls were designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, creator of Christchurch's transitional Cardboard Cathedral. Somehow, Ban's friendly approach manages to make the earthquakes, cyclones, floods or disease seem more real. Inside, visitors explore the bad stuff - but also how communities are looking out for each other.

Ban was one of three famous architects who collaborated on the 18-month renovation of the museum, which reopened last year in May.

Its spaces have three major themes: risk, human dignity and reuniting families. It's all pulled together by the holograms of 12 real people whose eyes follow us around the room.

When we touch our hands to theirs, the holograms come to life and tell their stories.

We meet Najmuddin Helal, who runs a physical rehabilitation centre in Afghanistan.

"I know what it means to lose a limb. Therefore I can give others hope when I try to help them."

Musician Emmanuel Jal talks about his past as a child soldier in Sudan, and how rapping saved him.

Liliose Iraguha from Rwanda shares her story.

"We were given a lot of help to become human beings again."

These remarkable face-to-face encounters bridge the divide between "people like us" and "people like them". You see, hear and feel our shared humanity.

Along with displays taking you through the 150-year history of the Red Cross (active in 189 countries), there's material on the Red Cross' "moral failure" to protect Jews and the Roma during World War II, and its responses to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and atrocities at Guantanamo Bay.

Not everything hits the spot. A miniature "optical theatre" exploring the effects of a tsunami had all the gravitas of a 1970s French mime artist.

During our visit, some of the technical displays weren't working. At one point, the museum rebooted its audiovisual system.

But the intention is clear: visitors learn through senses and emotion.

By putting yourself in another's shoes, you realise we're all in the same boat.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several airlines run stop-over flights from Auckland to Zurich. Once there, rail is the ideal way to see the country, and the handy Swiss Pass offered by the Swiss Travel System provides unlimited access to its network of trains, buses, trams and boats. Free admission to more than 400 museums is also part of the deal.

Further information: See redcrossmuseum.ch and myswitzerland.com.

- NZ Herald

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