February 2, 2010

The Red Cross Museum in Geneva: The World’s First Humanitarian Aid Agency

Visiting the Red Cross Museum in Geneva

They stand together. Arms shackled, faces covered, feet bare, their posture somehow shrieking both defiance and despair. They huddle in the corner and a wide space surrounds them. Reflective glass panels form the walls in this courtyard, while white sail sheets stretch over their heads, bearing two blunt-red symbols: a stocky cross and a watchful crescent.

I shiver as I hurry past and not just because the stinging cold makes my eyes run.

“Would you like an audio guide?” asks the man stationed at the desk and I nod, suddenly overwhelmed by the ridiculous desire to hear a comforting human voice. I’ve no idea what I expected from a museum dedicated to the world’s first humanitarian aid agency, but those statues have already unnerved me.

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The Story of the Red Cross

The recorded commentary doesn’t help. Like most of Geneva so far, this woman speaks with detached control, an internationally neutral accent that I can’t place.

International Documents Describing Care for Human Life as a Universal Theme Across Civilizations in the Red Cross and Crescent Museum Geneva
Care for Human Life. A Constant Theme?

“We are not here to pass judgement,” she says, as she ushers me downstairs into the darkness. A neon stripe encloses shattered slate and wires suspend taut texts in the air. By unearthing records from Confucius to Islam, the Red Cross illustrates that care for human life has “been a constant theme of all civilisations.”

By unearthing records from Confucius to Islam, the Red Cross illustrates that care for human life has “been a constant theme of all civilisations.”

My hands begin to thaw as I walk past the shadow of Florence Nightingale and other forerunners of the aid movement and meet the gleaming statue of Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross and winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize.

He sits frozen at his desk while bugle-laden music, oil portraits and combat scenes describe the Battle of Solferino, where 40 000 soldiers were killed or injured within a single day in 1859.

Statue of Dunant, winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize, at the museum of the red cross and crescent, Geneva, the world's first humanitarian aid agency
Dunant – Winner of the First Nobel Peace Prize

At the time, Dunant worked as a Geneva-based businessman. He returned from the bloody fields of northern Italy, haunted by what he had seen and subsequently campaigned to “formulate some international principle, sanctioned by a convention, inviolate in character, which, once approved and ratified, might serve as the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded.”

In other words, the First Geneva Convention.

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In other words, the First Geneva Convention.

Faded documents, creased bandages and jewellery boxes of surgical implements, nearly identical to those used today, catalogue the first 50 or so years of the Red Cross’s life. Countries and organizations negotiated rights and responsibilities as medical care for injured soldiers extended across the world to every continent except Australasia. What began as a daunting humanitarian task then exploded in scale with the outbreak of World War I.

During this period, the Movement, as it styles itself, first began to track the conditions and locations of prisoners of war. Chestnut drawers filled with cardboard files rest neatly in rows of glass cases, the deliberate ink of two million names. Bern, Bernard,Bernt. Somewhere, at some time, each card represented a person, each scratched word another human’s efforts to trace them.

Each scratched word another human’s efforts to trace them.

This dusty corridor of nostalgia leads on to scratchy black and white footage of each World War. I’ve seen photos of the trenches before, those queues of blindfolded men in long-johns, barefoot in the mud. As a doctor, I’ve studied trench foot and other cold-related injuries, but this was the first time I’d seen this: a solider staggering through the swill of the trench, then lifting one leg up as the clump that was his foot falls away.

At this point, I notice that there are other people in the museum. Two older ladies with curled auburn hair, stooping to read the fine print on the signs. A quiet American, with a hefty camera around his neck, politely taking photos.

Shadows & Illusions - The photographs and stories of the history of the red cross and crescent in Geneva.
Shadows & Illusions: The Past, the Present, the Future.

The museum’s shifting lights, screens, statues and life-size photos create a blur of confusing images and murmured sounds. I see my husband among the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, the American in occupied China, and my own reflection in the striped uniform of the Nazi concentration camps.

Here, my audio guide tells me, the Movement could do “almost nothing” for the holocaust victims because the Geneva Convention had not thought to cover civilians: because the world had not thought civilians would be targeted. Intense negotiations allowed a handful of volunteers to enter the camps, on the condition that they could not leave until the end of the war.

Such altruistic behaviour merges with insanity. I wondered then, and I still do now, what those people managed to achieve without further support and resources. I wonder what scars they bore by the end, or whether they even survived.

Open fire in Paris then blazes onto the screen, showing teams of medics running through the streets, their only shield only from the explosions and flaming debris being the makeshift crosses on their arms.

That stocky red cross symbolizes healthcare to me, as much as those five rings denote the Olympics and $ the almighty buck. I’d never been troubled by its origins, nor heard the Movement described as anything other than the Red Cross before. Another day, another chance to uncover my ignorance.

Red Cross & Crescent Flags, A Cross and moon in red and white above the museum of the same name in Geneva
International Red Cross & Crescent

The Red Cross is actually the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the croissant, a delicate sliver of moon, adopted in Islamic countries in 1929 following confusion with the cross as a Christian symbol.

The symbols and posters for the Red Cross also show the organisation’s transition, from allusions to holy women caring for heroic soldiers to assertive children recovering from landmine injuries.

By now, however, some part of me is lost. I stumble through the upstairs exhibits, duly registering a change in tone. It’s rainbow coloured here as we enter the second half of the 20th century. I vaguely notice programmes educating children about landmines, a reconstructed prison cell, and a wall papered with photographs of lost Rwandan children, unable to say their names. I know that I’m reading words that describe the campaign as a success, with more than 1000 children reunited with their families, but as I look at child 2806 I can’t help but wildly question what happened to the rest.

The images from downstairs still linger, those emaciated limbs, those mounds of corpses, and sobbing children waiting alone in the snow.

Shackled Figures with faces covered and hands tied behind their back at the entrance to the Red Cross & Crescent Museum in Geneva, Switzerland
Bound Figures – “That Says It All”

On my way out, I pass the American, photographing the masked figures that hunch on the bench.

“That says it all,” he says to his wife as he sinks to his knees to get the shot. “That says it all.”

I return to the outside world, the icy air grating at my face. I walk along the road called Avenue de la Paix, the Avenue of Peace, but I feel anything but.

Chacun est responsable de tout devant tous - Everyone is responsible to everyone for everthing. Motto in stone of the Red Cross & Crescent, Geneva, Swizerland
Everyone is responsible to everyone for everything.


  • Hi Abi,
    Absolutely. I visited in April and thought of you:) Again, your article is excellent.

  • Totally amazing place to visit! I agree….left a mark in my mind after I went…

    • I still think about this place every time I hear about the Red Cross on the news.

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