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?