Blood – that mysterious substance which both fascinates and repulses – is the subject of a provocative exhibition at Geneva’s International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum.
Entitled “All About Blood”, it aims to demonstrate how humans and society are both characterised and shaped by this vital life source.
It also offers a blood-chilling look at how the lines between fiction and reality are being increasingly blurred by daily exposure to images of war and violence.
“Blood is a symbol of life and of power… and we hope visitors will walk away with a more critical perspective on why it is so precious,” the museum’s curator, Philippe Mathez, told swissinfo.
“Certain people find the images too strong and somewhat shocking, but they are necessary to help visitors understand the complexity and importance of blood,” he added.
According to Mathez, the recent war in Iraq and the ongoing violence in the Middle East make the exhibition especially poignant.
“The media and the military use vocabulary such as ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘clean wars’… but the reality is that conflicts result in massive deaths, mostly of civilians,” Mathez said.
A display of medical instruments, body bags and a coffin serves as a stark reminder that conflict is never “clean”.
Nearby, a panel of television screens shows disturbing images of both real and fictional bloodshed – from horror film clips to television war footage – designed to drive home the difference between the two.
The museum also takes aim at the vast array of video games featuring fighting and killing, which promote violence as a form of amusement.
The ties that bind
Besides examining battlefield bloodshed, the exhibition invites visitors to reflect on the importance of blood in defining cultural identity and nationality.
A display of official documents demonstrates how Swiss nationality is transmitted by blood, rather than place of birth, as is the case in countries like France and the United States.
According to Mathez, bloodlines play an important role for the Swiss in strengthening regional ties.
“We have a different vision of ‘blood rights’ in Switzerland, which affects our cultural links and rituals,” Mathez explained.
He points to the annual feast of St Martin, in the Jura mountain region, as an example of the binding power of blood.
“People return to these mountains from far and wide to take part in the feast, which also involves eating blood sausage,” Mathez said. “So blood has special social significance as well.”
Examples of other blood-related foods, such as blood orange juice or Spanish Sangre de Toro (Bull’s Blood) wine, are also on display.
Gift of blood
Throughout the exhibition, heavy emphasis is placed on the role of the Red Cross in collecting and distributing blood throughout the world.
Vintage posters line the walls of one section of the museum, reminding visitors of the desperate appeals for blood donations that were launched during the First and Second World Wars.
Meanwhile, modern-day messages draw attention to the high rate of transportation accidents in many developing nations and the continuing need for blood supplies in Africa and Asia.
In addition, old-fashioned medical instruments and manuals are on display, which detail the history of blood transfusion and the discovery of blood types.
The comprehensive exhibition, which runs until August 10, also deals with a wide array of other subjects, ranging from menstruation and cultural taboos to the death penalty and public executions.
“We hope that visitors will ask themselves a lot of questions, like what use do we make of blood and why do we store it, spill it and donate it?” said Mathez.
swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva
Geneva’s International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is hosting a temporary exhibition entitled “All About Blood”.
The exhibition deals with a vast array of topics from battlefield bloodshed to television violence.
It also highlights the cultural and social impact of blood on everyday life, from religion and nationality to medicine and cuisine.
The provocative exhibition runs until August 10 in Geneva.
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