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International Prisoners-of-War

The ICRC’s neutrality during the war made its International Prisoners-of-War Agency a credible collection point for information sent by all combatant states. For each reported prisoner, the agency created a file card to enable indexing by nationality and military or civilian status. Today, long boxes of those cards, a veritable lost and found of bygone human identities, line shelf upon shelf in the museum, mute witnesses to a cataclysm that in four short years tore apart millions upon millions of individual lives and families, along with the empires that housed them. The 7-million item card file, now digitized, was at one time a treasure trove for agonized relatives seeking information about husbands, sons, and fathers missing in action.5 It became a parastatal database, born of the residual desire of nations that had sleepwalked into disaster not to abandon common humanity, by giving notice of the fate of the captured to a private relief agency turned into data central. Today, that record still has the power to impress, through the sheer number of lives whose residues are collected in those drawers of the dead.

At the same time, the museum positions the ICRC as offering a view from everywhere, with the capacity to encompass the entire condition of disaster-stricken humanity within its universally therapeutic gaze. Even the name of the museum speaks to inclusion, appropriating two of the world’s best known religious symbols, the cross and the crescent, to signal religious ecumenicism.6 Inside, too, the exhibits strive to draw together an entire world of experience, from every region where war has claimed victims, dictatorial rulers have inflicted torture, or natural disasters have driven people from shelter and home. One exhibit even invites visitors to play the role of the canonical emergency management expert by imagining the right responses to scenarios from an unfolding natural disaster and observing the results of their choices. In this game, the data serves to generate universally plausible scenarios and responses; the purpose is not to record, let alone commemorate, individual or idiosyncratic experiences.