Memory through Memorial: The Power of Curators

I feel that there is validity in the claim that the framework of a museum is structured around it’s “grammer”. The way things and objects are presented can warp the emotions of the viewer. As a result, the museum curators hold a great responsibility to ensure that the subject has not become mutilated and editorialized for the sake of ticket sales or public appeal. Curators must walk a fine line between making the museum interesting and able to draw crowds, while making sure to not cross the line of taking advantage of what all too often is a sensitive part of history. For instance, the fact that Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Museum are renowned by both Holocaust scholars, survivors, and members of the general public show that they have not strayed too far from this fine line.  This idea of “light-editorializing” also relates to Kuper’s idea of ensuring that the public memory (in terms of Holocaust memorials) is at the very least acknowledged.  Kuper’s views on public memory are that  f memorials should be about not only remembering the event and people, but also the reality of the time and what did or not happen to stop the atrocities now memorialized.

One example of a public holocaust memorial that I have found is the New England Holocaust memorial. Located near Faneuil Hall in Boston, this monument consists of six glass pillars (six; one for each of the major death camps, as well as one year for each year of the holocaust, and the number in millions of Jews who were killed). In regards to public memory (considering the United States did little to stop the atrocities of the Holocaust), the monument uses poems in a subtle fashion. For instance, the poem First they Came is inscribed on a stone next to the monument. While there is no written explanation of the poems significance here, the context is clear. There are other, more saddening poems at the monument, but none come as close to acknowledging what Kuper calls “public memory” as First They Came.

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4 thoughts on “Memory through Memorial: The Power of Curators

  1. I found the article discussing the different “adaptations” of history and memorials to be compelling, and only serves to make me double down on the importance of the “grammar” within museums. I believe that even more attention should be put to focus on memorials, as it is through these means that the Dutch publically are reminded of their history, both good and bad. Parallels can be drawn to the United States’ most recent news of Confederate statues being torn down across the south. Could one argue that by tearing these statues down, we are sterilizing our history? Are these statues now idols, or are they testaments to our dark past? I suppose this thin line between idolization and remembrance is the same argument The Dutch face as to try to acknowledge their dark past. If Kuper had written on the “public memory” of Dutch Colonization, he would, at the bare minimum, take a hard approach, urging that the Dutch people learn their past, and more importantly, from their mistakes in a public way. I believe that one memorial/museum that does this well, be it in a subtle fashion is the United States Holocaust Museum, which features a panel and section dedicated to why the Americans didn’t (wouldn’t) drop bombs on Auschwitz or the train cars. The museum admonishes it’s own nation on the actions it took during the war, without explicitly saying so.

    On a side note, there were many mentions of how museums were sponsored within the South African reading, which caught my eye. I wonder how much of The United States’ museums and even our memorials are/were funded through either corporate sources, or those with a conflict of interest. I found an interesting (and very old) New York Times article that discusses how corporations can act like curators in some instances. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/arts/design/23pogr.html

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  2. I like the idea of thinking of this line. What do you think that line means, exactly: how far a museum is willing to push past our comfort zones, or something else? And what do they risk, exactly–being seen as opportunistic or exploitative? And where do you think this line is with Holocaust memorials? Have you seen anything that crosses over it? In what way, say, could that New England one cross a line?
    And what do you think is its “grammar”? and how does it use that grammar to say something? and is that something limited or potentially problematic in any way?

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  3. I really like you comment on the role and responsibilities of curators, but I’d like to add my thought that it is impossible for curators to not take advantage of the objects they are in charge of. A curator’s job is to manipulate objects to create a seamless, entertaining, educational, flowing exhibition of art/artifacts/history. I would argue that it’s their job to try to hide their hand in it as much as possible. Everyone has specific intentions, but ultimately you want to make the visitor feel in control. (I realize this may be a controversial stance to take)

    The New England Holocaust memorial is an interesting memorial to look at. It seems from the photo that the memorial is located in a median in the road, do tourists and locals even know what it is? Is knowledge of intent important in memorials, or should you be able to get the “right” feeling without knowing what it is for? Just thoughts to consider.

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  4. I agree with your statement that the framework of a museum is structured around it’s “grammer” and I like the fact that you include the curator’s job to find a balance between making the museum informative and exciting. You also mention that the fine line between informative and entertaining. Where exactly is that like and how far can you cross that line with making the museum uninteresting with lots of information or fascinating without enough information. Also what exactly does the public want from museums such as the USHMM and how does that affect the fine line created between informative and exciting?

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