Museums and presentation: seeing, viewing, discerning

I really enjoyed reading Hansen’s article about viewing museum exhibits and identifying  certain biases based on critical details. For example, the Yad Vashem Gallery’s use of unstable imagery and entrapment to simulate or to rehash, in a different light, how people might have felt when they experienced isolation, or felt trapped by a barbed wire. (Hansen, 89) I think that it is incredibly important for a museum to sell not just its subject, but its experience. A powerful example of this would be Oskar Schindler’s factory, now a museum, in Krakow. I visited the museum this past May, and anyone could have disseminated its content, but they could not have presented it in the way that the museum did. The museum utilized imagery and design that was meant to resemble what the factory would have looked like when jewish workers under the care of Oskar Schindler worked there. This presentation demonstrates the mindfulness of the curators. To fully involve an audience by bombarding them with information and conscious and sub-conscious experience is crucial because it fully stimulates a museum-goer.

I have definitely been in a few museums that have not hit the mark in this regard, but many, and especially the ones in D.C. like the museum of African American History and culture, and the Museum of the American Indian do this incredibly well.

Monuments and memorials and how they are presented are just as important as what they commemorate. A potent example of this is the Auschwitz Memorial in Amsterdam. It is made up of broken mirrors, and is supposed to signify that “heaven is no longer unbroken since Auschwitz”. This is according to the creator, Jan Wolkers. While this is a valid enough explanation, I’d like to apply Hansen’s method. The monument obviously commemorates and honors the victims of Auschwitz. However, the broken mirrors provide a presentation that is more experiential than pure content. The mirrors could mean that we as humans need to take a good look at ourselves and keep ourselves morally in check. It could also mean that while we do things that we think are right, our perceptions of ourselves are always blinded by our biases. Regardless, this monument is more than just a monument; it is an experience. Auschwitz_monument_amsterdam


5 thoughts on “Museums and presentation: seeing, viewing, discerning

  1. Really interesting and enlightening comments on the Auschwitz Memorial in Amsterdam. I think you could really flesh out this analysis for your paper, and bring in the ideas from Middelkoop/Pesko and Francisco. If you want to look into the history of mirrors and their usage in art this could even tie all the way back to week one and looking at Dutch still lives. Portraying memory to a public requires such grounded visual language I think that that connection to Dutch history would be interesting.


  2. Nice find in this monument–maybe we can include it on one of our tours. And nice start on an analysis of it here, playing off the connotations of mirrors and connecting them to the act of the visitor’s reflection (pun intended) on his or her own responsibility going forward, right? What do you think is the grammar of this monument, though? Does it share a grammar with other monuments in its reflective surface, its flatness on the ground, or its sole pillar rising up? What do these things tend to signify when seen in other memorial contexts (grave stones? surface grave markers? reflecting pools?). Do these help generate other meanings for the visitor/viewer?


    1. I do think that this monument shares grammar with others, because improving and learning involves introspection. The Auschwitz Memorial’s grammar foments introspection, and in a way replicates the foliage and environment of Auschwitz. It accomplishes this task to make the viewer feel as if they are there, remembering. These elements of grammar do help generate meaning for the viewer, and without these nudges, the average viewer might not have the same experience.

      With regard to the Netherlands and how they should address their colonial past, it is hard to say that there is one correct path. There are many ways to reconcile their transgressions. The primary point of focus should be education. If the museums seek to educate the people and also validate the peoples that they subjugated, those former colonial subjects have a chance at equality and justice.

      A prime example of how to utilize grammar and recognize the work of a subjugated people is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is somber, reflective, and celebratory all at the same time. Its grammar educates, and allows the viewer to recognize the meaning and substantial contributions of the African American community to the progress of the United States.


  3. I think you make a great point about how great museums are mindful that they stimulate the museum visitor, and as a result, I wonder if the average visitor to this memorial would have the same response that you had. Looking at the Amsterdam Auschwitz memorial, its significance could easily be lost on me if I were not analyzing this (based on the picture) from a non analytical point of view. I wonder if the curators need to find a balance of open-endedness, and also making sure that everyone leaves the memorial with some provocation. I wonder if this memorial has been well received by not only the critical public, but the general public as well, as it is the general public for whom these memorial are really for.


  4. I really like the examples that you used to convey your point and I think that you should expand more on the imagery that can be used to capture an audience. Hansen-Glucklich mentions that the framework of a museum is structured around its “grammar”. Although the use of imagery is important and can convey a specific message I feel as though the examples that you used can be a little more informative. Imagery is important, but if the audience is too focused on the imagery than they can lose the informative side of displays and the point of the museum is lost at that point.


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