As you wander through what is known as Block 5 in the Nazi hell-hole that is Auschwitz, you’ll come upon a dormitory with a huge floor-to-ceiling glass display case that runs the length of one wall.
Inside, all jumbled up together in what is tantamount to a massive rubbish heap, are shoes. Thousands and thousands of them.
Most of them are dark in colour, as would have been the fashion norm at the time – but occasionally you also spot a flash of colour, or the high heel of a woman’s shoe. Most upsetting of all is when you glimpse a tiny shoe – your mind trying to process the fact that this must have belonged to a small child.
Yes, it’s upsetting. Of course it’s upsetting – this is Auschwitz, and there are no happy stories here. It’s a dark and horrific place.
Beside the shoes, there is another glass case, this one filled with suitcases, some poignantly humanised because of the names the owners scrawled on them. And there is another glass case, filled with the hair that was shaved from so many heads before people were pushed into the gas chambers.
To look at these exhibits is to stare horror, and history, in the face.
“This is what happened,” these artefacts tell us. “These shoes were once on the feet of ordinary people who were massacred. These were their suitcases, this was their hair.”
It’s horrific. Just as staring at the blood-stained and bullet-holed cap that Michael Collins was wearing when he was shot in the back of the head at Béal na Bláth is also horrific.
It reinforces what happened that day; it speaks of historic truth.
And yet, as we commemorate the centenary of Collins’s death in just a few days’ time, we cannot actually stand and stare at that blood-stained cap, for it’s no longer on display in our National Museum.
Collins’s coat is there, and his rosary beads, and his revolvers, and his diary. But there’s no cap on display. Almost two years ago it was deemed too sensitive an exhibit because of the blood and the human matter still in evidence on it.
So it remains “in conservation”, as a National Museum spokesperson told me this week when I rang up to enquire about it.
Full disclosure here: I am somewhat fixated on the death-cap of General Michael Collins. I think it should be on display. I think we all have a right to look at it – or to pass it by, if we ourselves deem it too sensitive or too bloody for our own eyes or for those of our children.
Surely that should be a personal decision, rather than a corporate one?
This was the cap Michael Collins was wearing when he was slain 100 years ago. That it is stained with his blood only reveals an even greater historic truth. It is part of his own story, and part of our national narrative. We need to see it on display.
Meanwhile, for the impatient among us, I’m told personal viewings can be booked with the museum.
So, for anyone who believes history should not be sanitised or distorted, it’s time to make that booking right now.