Museums and Exhibition Techniques: How Do Museums Make Us See in a Certain Way

By Jackie Gase

Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich in her chapter The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits presents an analysis of how we see exhibits in museums and what the exhibition designers do to encourage how visitors encounter and interpret objects. Hansen-Glucklich focuses specifically on Holocaust museums and analyzes how museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Yad Vashem Gallery use framing and exhibition techniques (space, lighting, grouping of items) to produce a particular narrative they wish the visitors to engage with. In Hansen-Glucklich’s analysis, she uses the framework called “grammar of exhibition space” to note how some particular museums create a space that deviates from conventional museum practices. Unlike the white walled glass box of a museum, these museums interact with their visitors on a whole new level demanding a certain level of active participation. I think that this participation is encouraged through the “grammar” of the space.

Like a perfectly constructed novel with proper grammar, when you produce a work like Clockwork Orange that changes conventional vocabulary and uses strange diction you are not only disrupting the established grammar but you are implicating a certain way that viewers should look at the characters and understand the environment of the novel. The grammar of a museum is the same way. Deviation from a normal museum space disrupts the viewer’s visual expectations and demands that they interact with the space on a different level, asking themselves questions on why the space is the way it is. Furthermore, the deviation from the general grammar can produce spaces that involve all the senses of the visitors, allowing the viewers an opportunity to experience the museum beyond the visual. For example, the shoe room of the USHMM created an atmosphere where the visitors feel haunted by the piles of similar gray shoes laying on right in front of them. The visitors themselves stand in a darkly lit hallway and beyond them is a similarly harshly lit hallway with brick walls giving a foreboding atmosphere. The shoes themselves and divided from the viewers surrounded by a white wall, a way to emphasize the gray ash color of the shoes and evokes the memory of mass destruction, The skylight radiating down on the shoes gives a sacred light similar to the rays penetrating through a stained glass window. All of these different elements come together to provide a sensory experience that incorporates the audience into the discussion of Holocaust victims instead of letting them remain passive observers.

Though I think this framework is great in realizing that the audience should have some sort of active participation, there is some complications on authority. It is the ideologies of the museum staff that produce these environments. As noted in Reesa Greenberg’s article Jews, Museums, and National Identities, there are complications in how nations wish to represent Jewish history. Her article hinges on the theme of tolerance. While she discusses the avoidance of postwar Israeli politics and making sure to separate Jewish history from national history to escape a nationalistic discourse, most notably at the USHMM there is a limitation of roles and oversight in homogenizing an entire group of people.

While I know that the USHMM wants to show the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish people, I think keeping the photograph’s anonymous is telling visitors to remain distant from discussion on the Holocaust and discussions of Jewish prejudice. The Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem connects the victims with their names, the one thing that was taken away from them. This humanizes the exhibit and delegates the power of remembrance and authority away from the curators and exhibition designers and back to people who the exhibit is showcasing.

Lastly, a quick story really showing the evidence of museums leaving out the variety of gender and social groups in the discussion of Jews during the Holocaust, Elaine Gurian, well-known museum consultant and advisor, was the Deputy Director at the USHMM when it first opened. She came to speak to my class in undergrad and said that while consulting with the curators, she was surprised that they didn’t have any information in the museum on the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. A completely different minority group of people persecuted within a larger persecuted group, but still a part of history nonetheless that was seemingly left out of the discussion. Perhaps the museum staff wished to focus on Jewish victimization. However, the history of homosexual persecution should be noted in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum because though a minority of about 15,000, those people were a part of the Holocaust and weren’t going to be remembered. Eventually a small exhibit was put in and there is a page on the USHMM website that talks about this history. However, this example really shows the challenges for museums in providing a more complex history.

Here is the link on the USHMM website if you guys want to learn a bit more about the homosexual persecution: https://www.ushmm.org/learn/students/learning-materials-and-resources/homosexuals-victims-of-the-nazi-era/persecution-of-homosexuals

Also as I was googling images and since I didn’t have a chance to talk about Kuper, here is an image of the Warehouse 24 wall in Rotterdam if you couldn’t find it online! It was rather difficult I will say, surprising?

warehouse 24

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6 thoughts on “Museums and Exhibition Techniques: How Do Museums Make Us See in a Certain Way

  1. I agree with Jen that coming from an anthropological perspective could be good for your paper. I think another point she made that is worth exploring is do ethnographic museums do justice to the peoples they portray.

    Something that you could explore is the patrimonial relationship of the countries and their colonized subjects, and how that connection affects the portrayal of colonial narratives by the former colonizers. It is safe to say that the bias and position of power of former colonizers gives them conscious or subconscious clearance to display narratives how they please. The responsible course of action is to give the full story, fully acknowledging the dark and poignant pasts of these colonizers.

    Another thing (that shouldn’t be the focal point of the paper) is comparing this Dutch question to the monuments to the civil war in the US and acknowledging and taking at face value racist figures like Woodrow Wilson, who also contributed greatly to the country.

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  2. Great insight! Coming from a background in art history and anthropology may be an interesting approach for your paper. Do ethnographic museums do justice to the people/cultures they are displaying? Does this vary by museum or location? And are museums successful in this? Is creating an authentic, true depiction something a museum, such as the University of Michigan, has expressed in their collections management policy or mission statement? These are some possible questions to look into.
    It may be interesting to look into more museums that have changed their stance on colonization/racism/slavery and are being transparent with their stance. It would be interesting to see a museum such as the University of Michigan show side by side their old pro-colonization labels/objects with objects or information of the native culture. This would show both sides of history, allowing the visitor to gain a full knowledge and understanding of the topic.

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  3. First, responding to tleavell’s comment, I can see how the USHMM may try to “mirror the dehumanization of the experience” by not providing labels for the people in the photograph. For them it seems that the visitor response and experience is more important than the memorial aspect of the museum. They left out the identification to create tension for the viewer, to elevate the experience of the museum. However, I agree with the second comment that the museum should humanize the experience because it has a duty to the victims it is presenting in the museum. I think that the USHMM should take part in the same method of display that the Yad Vashem presents. The Yad Vashem believes that they have a duty to the victims to restore their identities, which were taken from them in Holocaust. In this sense, the Yad Vashem because a museum that emphasizes it memorial aspects as well as its historical educative space. The USHMM misses on the first account.

    In response to tleavell’s second question on what else these historical and memorial places can offer to us, I think we can connect to Louis Middelkoop’s and Matthew Pesko’s article Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets, and Other Structures. I think that museums not only create “understanding, validation, peace, and explanation,” but in some cases, and in the best cases, they produce discussion and critical examination of the subject. It’s not only about understanding the content, but interacting with it asking yourself questions about the material and creating a connection of the past to the future.

    Middelkoop and Pesko posit an answer to their initial question about “how the city and nation [should] deal with the remnants of a controversial if not shameful past?” They believe that it is necessary to provide a thoughtful education on Dutch history in schools, to be aware of all the good events but also to recognize the history of the bad. Many people that distinguish themselves as Dutch almost refuse to acknowledge some of the nation’s colonial past. But in order to understand and respond to present issues in an effective way. Personally, I don’t think it’s right for the Dutch to change the name and structure of the Van Heutsz monument due to its commemoration of a colonial individual that killed thousands and not change the name of the tunnel which is exactly the same thing. As we can see the Dutch have problems with accepting their history and responding to it in present day society.

    We can further see this in the article by Leslie Witz and Ciraj Rassool who critique the Tropenmuseum exhibition Familieverhalen for falling back on ethnic categories in their exhibit meant to display the flexibility and complexities in South African culture. In the end, the museum with their aspirations to attract a Dutch audience took up colonial frameworks they were attempting to disband. It seems that the Dutch are always trying to put on this front that they were never really a part of the bad aspects of history. They distance themselves from the past and put on this persona of goodness and honor that distorts their true identity. The best way to fight this is education and transparency. Being transparent about a controversial past is the best way to move on in the future.

    One museum that took a transparent approach to their past is the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. Their anthropology museum showcased the ethnographic material of tribes in the Philippines they had colonized and researched. In the display, the labels and materials were all shown with a colonial eye, telling of the brave men who went to the Philippines and taught the primitive tribes the intellect and knowledge of the west. Also in the exhibit were dioramas essentializing mass groups of people in the Philippines and noting their native and primitive nature. In the construction of the new museum, the museum decided to be transparent about their past of exploiting Philippine culture. So, they changed the exhibit and added labels that discussed their colonial past and how these objects related to that past. One corner of the new exhibit was left the same as in the past and it was kept educating museum goers on the colonial bias that can occur with ethnographic material. I think that this transparency was an excellent way to acknowledge the museum’s own history of colonialism while educating others on the same biases they once had.

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  4. Thanks for that story about the apparent conflict among curators–I’m sure there’s a story there. Does that get at “grammar” or maybe “vocabulary”–i.e., they only had language to talk about Jews in the Holocaust, not homosexuals as well. For grammar, I’m still wondering what you all think of Hansen-Glucklich’s definition and application of the notion of “grammar.” I can start to see it a bit here–is there such thing, say as “a participatory grammar”–a system of principles and techniques that work to involve the visitor in some specific ways? E.g., using objects of victims, or using a large mass of objects representing a (nameless) mass of victims, using walls of photographs, using actual walls (as in the Rotterdam example), using certain kinds of lighting (shrine-like?), etc. And perhaps we see one museum’s grammar best when we contrast it with another: e.g., what is the grammar of say, the National Gallery of Art? as contrasted with the US Holocaust museum?

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  5. I have not seen A Clockwork Orange, but find it interesting that you make this connection. Museums should try to challenge the status quo and provoke thought, and in this vein I agree with you.

    With regard to the penultimate paragraph, I think that a potential reason for the USHMM to not identify the people in the photographs could be trying to mirror the dehumanization of the experience. However, I do not know if that is a sufficient explanation. If anything, the museum should attempt to humanize the experience wherever it can, because that is the least the victims deserve.

    How else could the USHMM have presented these photographs to humanize this experience a bit more? What more can you ask of the USHMM? (I haven’t been in a while, so its hard for me to point to something straight from memory)

    What, besides understanding, validation, peace, and explanation do we want from these shrines and troves of information? What can we gain? How can we grow from these places besides these previously mentioned elements?

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  6. Hello. That is a wonderful point about the other races/social groups that were persecuted during the Holocaust. Not many know but this includes homosexuals, gypsies/Roma, people with mental/physical/learning disabilities, opposing political leaders etc. Anyone that did not fit into the Nazi model of purity or would prevent them from their mission was out. The USHMM, while focusing on the persecution of Jews, covers all of these groups. By showing the different groups that were persecuted allows for more personal connection with the audience. The visitor may not be Jewish but may be in another category (gay, lost a leg, etc). The realization that someone like them could be persecuted gives the visitor a new perspective and a more emotional connection to the events.

    I also agree that with the Hall of Names or Tower of Faces break up the emotional, informational experience and allow the visitors to look back on the people that were affected, adding a personal, human connection to the horrific events. The final room/exhibit of the USHMM is a hall of remembrance (not sure of the exact name). It is a round room with different sections for the concentration camps during WWII. In each section there are candles to light, like in a church or large mausoleum. This white, large domed space allows the visitor to reflect on their experience in the museum before exiting to the giftshop and the busy streets of downtown DC.

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