Week 1: United States Institute of Peace


Institution mission: The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress to increase the nation’s capacity to manage international conflict without violence.

My temporary job as a Visitor Assistant during the Capitol Visitor Center’s busy season has culminated, and thus begins Weekly Museum Visits Part III. For the first week, I made the unorthodox choice of a site many people would not consider a museum.

However, I had once looked into a position at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that entailed giving tours to visitors and other visitor services tasks. Although tours of the headquarters are not available to the general public at this time, I have been curious about the building’s similarities to other government buildings that serve as museums, as well as the institution’s programming. And so, I attended a movie screening and panel discussion earlier this week.

United States Institute of Peace building

United States Institute of Peace building

The building itself is light and open and glassy, with curved skylights that evoke the image of a dove’s wings. Inside the main atrium, the space is stark, but there is a small sculpture of a dove. A dove is also part of the agency’s logo, which can be found on walls inside and outside. I did not get to see much of the building, aside from the atrium and the conference room where the event took place.

USIP does have a space with exhibits and educational activities called the Global Peacebuilding Center, a space which is available to student groups and which I did not see at all. I did experience some of the multimedia activities online. There is a Virtual Passport which presents information and case studies and then asks readers basic recall questions; correctly answering all the questions completes the passport. The exhibit Witnesses to Peacebuilding can be viewed online as well. At the physical site is the Peace Well exhibit, which is described on the website: “Viewed over a railing, the Peace Well presentation appears on a series of six large rear-projected screens, featuring powerful imagery, music, sound effects, and projected text.”

Oriana Zill and Lorena Morales Vidal at United States Institute of Peace

Oriana Zill and Lorena Morales Vidal at United States Institute of Peace

As for the event I attended, “Women, War and Peacebuilding in Colombia” was quite informative, with experts on the panel and clearly many experts in the audience. Most of the attendees had signed up in advance and were affiliated with a relevant organization or a university. I was just a random person with newfound free time and a thirst for knowledge, but I was as welcomed as everyone else.

We watched a documentary of just under an hour, titled The War We Are Living, about two women in rural, Afro Colombian communities fighting to keep their resource-rich land and source of livelihood in the face of a civil war that, in the rural areas, is still going on. The ending was unsettling. Though the government’s eviction order to one community – in favor of a man’s mining license, essentially displacing the community for commercial interests – was postponed, the conflict ultimately remained unresolved. Furthermore, the featured women always knew their lives were at risk.

Lorena Morales Vidal and Virginia M. Bouvier at United States Institute of Peace

Lorena Morales Vidal and Virginia M. Bouvier at United States Institute of Peace

Following the screening, USIP’s Kathleen Kuehnast moderated a panel with the movie’s producer Oriana Zill, Asociacion Colectivo Mujeres al Derecho’s Lorena Morales Vidal, and Virginia M. Bouvier (also from USIP). The panelists discussed the unique impact of war on women, as well as the often freer – but highly risky – role that women, left behind in rural villages when men leave to fight, can play in local peacebuilding processes. Audience members asked questions on topics such as what protections these women needed and whether these protections were given, and the different gender-related effects of ideological wars, ethnic-based wars, and economic wars.

Throughout the event ran a theme: that peace is both multifaceted and possible. Though peace may have been “officially” achieved in Colombia, the lives of rural Afro Colombians are anything but peaceful, with violence from paramilitaries and threats of displacement affecting every aspect of everyday life. Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and a weapon of land control. True peace would mean freedom from all kinds of violence and security in land ownership, with educational and economic opportunities available as alternatives to joining up to fight on one side or another.

Peace, especially in that holistic sense, is a tall order, and the world has a long way to go. Still, USIP’s online and onsite exhibits, its movies, and even the architecture of its building are testimony to the hope for progress toward a better world.

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November’s blog theme is Museums Versus the Problems of the World.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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