Curated by James T. Hong & Anselm Franke

Monstrosity in modern times surely comes in plentiful forms, but its most poignant face is not modern fiction, but actual violence enacted in the name of rationality. The Museum of the Monster That Is History is devoted to the violence on which modern states and social orders are based. It looks at the violence that foregoes any “modern” organization of society (which never disappears at its margins within and without) and in those institutions that guard them. It highlights the monstrosities exerted in the name of reason and order, or in the name of a lesser evil to serve a greater perceived good. State-sanctioned forms of terror are monstrous not merely because of the scale of destruction afforded by modern technologies, but more so because of their “normality.” While perhaps considered unfortunate, state terror is still accepted as necessary and legitimate at a given moment within a particular regime, or in the name of a universalist science. And indeed while modern history is characterized by radical ruptures and permanent transformations, it is in the insistent irrationality of officially sanctioned, systemic terror, as experienced in colonial subjugation, genocide, imperial wars, cultural destruction, and disciplinary measures, that we must locate its actual and strikingly consistent continuity. Turning towards this continuity in modern history reveals that there is a particular systemic economy of terror necessitated by the rule of “modern reason” itself, and hence official terror is not an exception, but rather modernity’s history-making rule. This side of modern rationality presents us with a symptom running counter to the promise of progress: modernity as the permanent invention of a barbarity that hides behind the mask of civilization, order, and rationality.

The Museum of the Monster That Is History comprises various contributions. Taiwan WMD identifies weapons of mass destruction as its monstrous historical subject. The international community has taken steps to ban or at least control the spread of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), but Taiwan is not officially a part of this international community. And since Taiwan (ROC) was born as a state of emergency in a state of exception, WMDs are especially well-suited for just such states and just such emergencies. Compiled by James T. Hong, with contributions by Tony Wu and Kelvin Park, this exhibit presents the rarely documented and much contested history of these types of weapons within and around Taiwan.

The end of World War II signaled both the creation of modern Asian states and the inauguration of their state-supported WMD programs, which were kick-started by Japanese WWII research units, such as Unit 731 in China and Unit 31 in Taiwan, and by preparations for the coming Cold War. One such example is The Report of G., which outlines WWII Japanese experiments with the glanders bacterium, a weaponized horse disease, on primarily Chinese prisoners. Prepared by Japanese biological warfare scientists for the US government in 1949, this report impeccably represents the utilization of medicine, science, and rationality for the efficient production of terror.

Supplementing these exhibits, The Museum of the Monster That Is History dedicates a series of vitrine displays to particular historical aspects of “the rationality of terror”: one is dedicated to the Great Famine in China, conceived by scholar Jie Li; another to decapitation as an iconographic and political motif which persists both in Chinese history and in modernity at large; and another to the Irishman Roger Casement, who served the British government and authored two famous “reports” on systematic colonial terror in the Congo and the Amazon around the turn of the twentieth century. During WWI the British would execute Casement as a traitor.

Cultural theorist and artist Bavand Behpoor, together with graphic designer Reza Abedini, contribute an installation on the “martyrs museum,” a form of museum found worldwide which palpably exemplifies the fundaments of modern states in martyrdom, as the sacrifice of individuals and their bodies. The museum that they restage in parts, however, is the rather particular Shiraz Martyrs Museum in Iran, which addresses itself to foreigners but is hardly visited by them, and relies in several respects on a metaphysics of absence,  in opposition to Western concepts of the museum. Their ”translated” martyrs museum hosts a variety of “typical” objects and accompanying martyr narratives that in themselves exhibit the gap between the systemic rationale and individual history. 

Another section of the museum is devoted to the role of traitors: those who betray the norms of their respective countries or communities and “cross” enemy lines. In the popular imagination, they are either embodiments of evil or larger-than-life personalities. The traitor here is literally looked upon as a “figure,” represented by an idiosyncratic selection of known and unknown figurines in the accessible size of twelve inches. This size seems to be the most appropriate for contemplating and perhaps appreciating their treasonous accomplishments. 

The museum then presents a display contemplating the “economy of death” by looking at the “price tags” and the monetary values of life. Just as a nation’s currency is relative to its strength and influence, so too is the value of its citizens. We imagine that all human lives are priceless, but we know that economic reality— represented, for instance, by compensation payments—speaks of another truth. 

The passage of time does not heal all wounds, and it cannot settle all accounts or resolve all disputes. So the final two exhibits offer attempts at preparing the ground for reconciliation and opening new chapters in history. As governments change, technologies advance, and the identities of perceived perpetrators adapt, symbolic atonements and scientific research seek to document, to uncover, and to put on record, as a prelude to possible forgiveness. Apologies, compiled by James T. Hong, presents the “official apologies” of statesmen and perpetrators from various contexts throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The Mineral Geology of Genocide, shot by Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman, and Steffen Krämer, documents a cutting-edge forensic investigation of mass graves in Guatemala, in an attempt to reconstruct the unwritten, silenced history of state-sanctioned violence. (James T. Hong and Anselm Franke)