Museum Mission: to document and expose the Laogai, China’s vast and brutal system of forced labor prison camps.
At the Laogai Museum in DC’s Dupont neighborhood, I learned that lao means labor, and gai means reform. When I put the two words together, I think “labor reform” – improving conditions for workers. But in this context, it means “reform through labor” – forced labor prisons for political dissidents, in existence in China since 1949.
Since I am now spending four days at a week at a museum whose floor plan includes a Five Freedoms Walkway and a First Amendment Gallery, the contrast is even more stark. At the Laogai Museum, I read about people who were sent to labor camps and tortured because they criticized the government in their personal diaries, listened to the wrong radio station, or attempted to peacefully practice their religion.
The museum, which is part of the Laogai Research Foundation, does a good job of packing a lot of information into a small space. Red, black, and white panels provide statistics as well as individual stories. In one corner, I may have spent 20 minutes or so sitting on a red sofa, watching videos in which Laogai survivors share their stories. Among the artifacts are many documents in Chinese that I largely passed over in order to read the English explanations of what they were (though I imagine they’d be quite chilling to read), and a bag with a hidden camera that Laogai survivor and Laogai Research Foundation founder Harry Wu used to document abuses at the labor camps.
In the spirit of accessibility as well as sensitivity to visitors, the museum is completely bilingual, in English and Chinese. The alcoves about executions and torture are labeled with warnings about the graphic content.
At the end of the recommended path, shortly before exiting, the visitor sees a glass case filled with products that were made using forced labor. They include stuffed animals, shirts, teas, and a Wal-Mart bag. The small panel of text asks, “Are you buying things made in the Laogai?”
Beyond this question, however, there’s not much here to make the content personal for the visitor. After spending an hour and a half reading about all these horrors, I wanted to read a panel at the end that would tell me what I can do about the widespread abuses. I also think the museum would benefit from a space where visitors could write, and read other visitors’, responses to the powerful content in the museum. The Holocaust Museum has technology for this kind of personal response, as do the Newseum’s 9/11 Gallery and Journalists Memorial. The Laogai Museum is a new museum, and I hope that a paper or digital response space is in the museum’s future. Visitors will surely have strong reactions to the museum, and it would be great to have a place for visitors to express these thoughts and feelings.