Why Purposeful Display Matters

In chapter four, The Artful Eye Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise inside Museum Exhibits, of the book Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation we learn how cultural theorist Mieke Bal has argued that specific exhibits demonstrate “a grammar of exhibition space”. This concept comes from Bal’s general argument that some exhibitions are structured and presented in terms derived from other forms of media. Bal used the issue of walls imposing frames like the rules of grammar on art as an example. She encourages the reader to explore how an asymmetrical space, and its art, may be both in harmony and disharmony with the general “grammar” of what they are observing. The frame of a certain exhibit might be different from the broader rule the building has established and create a certain degree of tension within the space.

Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocausr. The museums purpose is to preserve the memory of those who died and those who fought their Nazi oppressors. The permanent exhibition in Yad Vashem’s  uses display techniques, such as slanted angles, asymmetrical hangings, and the deliberate exposure of wires, that deviate from the dominant grammar of many conventional museums. The intent of conventional practices is to avoid distracting the viewer’s gaze from objects of interest and therefore prefer symmetrical hangings, perfect angles, and transparent rods to create the illusion of weightless suspension.

However, images in Yad Vashem’s gallery are suspended at angles that connect with the degree of slant of the wall, creating the impression that the images are asymmetrical and unstable. An example of this is a Yad Vashem gallery of images of deportation. The walls are much closer together than in other galleries in the museum and do not fully extend upward towards the celling. The purpose of this is to create an environment the resembles a cage in order to evoke the feeling of entrapment.

I have been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and have noticed many of the techniques discussed in this chapter put into practice their. Specifically how the overall mood of the museum is violent and how the violence dominates the museum and how “video monitors behind privacy walls (imitating a “peep-show format”) engage in a “constant recycling of slaughter.”

I think it would be particullary interesting to draw comparisons between museum “grammar” discussed by Hansen-Glucklich and public memory discussed by Kuper. Particularly with Hanger 24 and Hanger 24 Square and the accompanying sculpture there is little to no sinage to indicate what these sites represent. Typically in museums all works are clearly labeled so the viewer knows what they are looking at. After reading what the members of the Hanger 24 committee had to say it seemed that it was more important to them that it was there than that people knew it was there. I think this more or less goes against the idea of public memory, generally you want people to remember, not be unaware. When I tried to google Hangar 24 I couldn’t even find a single picture of it, showing just how forgotten it, and the history it represents, is.

Kuper, Simon, Ajax: The Dutch, The War – The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe’s Darkest Hour (2012)

JENNIFER HANSEN-GLUCKLICH, Museums and the Challenges of Representation, (2014)



6 thoughts on “Why Purposeful Display Matters

  1. Not sure what happened to my earlier comment–it seems to have disappeared! This is really a nice take on the idea of grammar, and with some specific examples–the frames, the cage-like references, the video monitors. I wonder what you think different kinds of “grammars” might achieve w/ Holocaust memorialization? Is the interactive quality ever problematic? Does it ever feel manipulative in a way that is not productive, or even off-putting? You mention Kuper–I wonder how we might apply “grammar” to outdoor spaces he’s talking about? Or to the history that may not be linked to a specific location still extant? What set of tools and motifs could work in those less controlled public spaces?


  2. First, a lot of the discussion above is about how Hangar 24 has no images online and it is seemingly forgotten by the general public. However, I found a picture of the Hangar 24 wall that Kuper mentioned and in the article I found it in it showed pictures of an added memorial. In April 2013 a year after Kuper’s book was published, the city built a semicircular memorial around part of the wall with the names of all the children that were victims of the area. How does this change our thinking of Kuper’s book and his idea of memory? That this place which was a huge part of his argument isn’t forgotten and there is a public memorial that people visit and place flowers as if it is a grave site.

    I think for your essay it would be really interesting to discuss Kuper’s theory of public memory in Rotterdam and his remarks on Hangar 24. Then I would think critically about whether Kuper’s argument is no longer valid because of the addition of the monument, and what the current perception of this monument is now to previously. Finally, I think your essay would do well by connecting your discussion of this public memory to the other article Professor Troutman said we could choose from. I know you focused on Lisa Francisco’s article but I think the other article by Middelkoop and Pesko would be better for your argument since it also talks about specific monuments and public memory. Using their article you could really delve into the theme of community perception of public monuments that honor a Dutch history.


  3. First, in response to one of the questions posed by jackiegase, I do think that objects can speak for themselves. I agree with her statement that “It isn’t about just the object anymore, but the experience”, a lot of museums and special exhibits today are too focused on creating an “experience” for the viewer that the attention is taken away from the art itself. For many years art museums stayed within the conventional “grammar” of hanging art with invisible wires in white rectangular rooms and small signs with only the artist, title, date, and medium. This allowed the art to speak for itself and each viewer to create their own experience. Although some of the “experience” focused museums can be fun, I also think curators need to let the art speak for itself.

    Second, to further what jenchiappone commented, by not being able to find any pictures of the Hangar 24 Square it affirmed one of Kuper’s argument, the Holocaust is not something that is mentioned or talked about. I really liked how she brought in the USHMM slogan, “Never Forget”. I think this can be applied to the article “But it was so long ago: Confronting the Dutch Slave Past, Present and Future in the Classroom” by Lisa Francisco. It was very surprising for me to learn that the history of slavery in the Netherlands is not apart of the school curriculum. By not teach the past to the youngest generation, no matter how sad and uncomfortable it may be, is allowing them to forget. People generally have a tendency to want to forget events in the past that they rather not be associate with but is the job of teachers to make sure that children understand to the fullest extent possible this history so it is not repeated.

    I think that the South Africa exhibition “Familieverhalen uit Zuid-Afrika/Group Portrait of South” at the Tropenmuseum shows just how much work is necessary to create an exhibit for/talk about a topic that is generally left untouched. I found it very interesting how the curator had to specifically focus on marketing this exhibition to a Dutch audience because it is not something that would generally intrigue them, this just goes to show that there is a large need to educate the general population about their country’s past and its consequences world wide.


  4. First, I would like to know your take on the “essence of the object.” Do you think that objects can speak for themselves? Do objects have auras that regardless of the environment it is in can say something to the viewer? I think this is what Hansen-Gluckich is questioning at one point. That museums are using the space around the objects and using the stylistic power of presentation to create meaning to the visitor. It isn’t about just the object anymore, but the experience. What is your take on this? Do you think that its fair to the objects and their history to focus on an interpretation seemingly initiated by the curator and exhibition designer’s ideologies?

    Second, with regard to Hangar 24 and other “forgotten” public monuments, I wonder if these sites interact and initiate more discussion by viewers than objects in a museum. If someone happened upon Hangar 24, as the author did, they are intrigued by the lack of signage, the lack of display and presentation. The monument stands as it once did and is a site of remembrance for those who dare to connect with it. I would be more interested in finding out all I could about this random wall along the road with a plain sign than I would with objects in a museum with labels that tell you all the information you think there is on the piece. The lack of awareness of the monument makes it that much more interactive than famous monuments or sites, it draws the passerby in to research and communication than a labelled object in a museum. However, this is only my opinion, what do you think?


  5. As Jennifer Hansen-Gluckich pointed out, it is important for a exhibition designer and curator to look into different methods of educating the public. This can be in interactive experiences, film, or different sections of exhibits to break up and emphasize the experience. That’s terrible that you were not able to find any pictures of the Hangar 24 Square! That just affirms what Simon Kuper was saying: the Holocaust is not something that is mentioned or talked about. After time of not acknowledging the atrocities that occurred and the countless lives lost, the population starts to forget and not remember the horrors. While unpleasant to think about, it is important to remember, for those who were affected by it and for us to be aware of our own actions. (This is an important thing to remember this day and age.) The USHMM has a slogan, “Never Forget.” This reminds us never to forget the struggle and horrors of WWII and other genocides and not to sit by and allow such a thing to happen in the future. We can always learn from the past.

    A good question that Professor Troutman brings up that I did not think about was “What do we want from museums and public monuments?” As a visitor, we want to be informed and entertained but a museum or committee may feel, especially with holocaust/resistance museums, that information and remembrance outweigh the entertainment and enjoyment factor. I know many people that couldn’t handle the USHMM and left crying halfway through. This isn’t the purpose of this museum, it is important to see that the message, legacy, and truth are the most important when it comes to museums like this.


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