Remembering the Past to Serve the Future

Museums play a vital role in preserving and presenting history. There are many different perspectives and ways of approaching almost any topic – nothing is as cut and dry as we would like it to be. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City is a worthy example of a conventional museum space; rectangular rooms, white walls, wooden floors, pictures hanging from wires that seamlessly blend into the space. The curators have taken great care to make sure nothing distracts from the art in a bid to allow the art to speak for itself. Many museums around the world that house paintings and sculptures of golden ages of long ago participate in conventional practices much the same as those found in the MET. Symmetry, ninety-degree angles, and weightless suspension are all tactics ices found in places from the MET in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Victoria and Albert in London, or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
These conventional practices are addressed 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 Prepresentation, by Jennifer Hanser-Glucklich as a part of Mieke Bal’s concept of the ‘grammar’ of museum exhibition space (Hansen-Gluckilch 87). The combination of the way in which a museum’s space is framed and the different techniques of presentation used within that space help to create the meaning of the exhibit (Hansen-Gluckiclh 88). “Display thus strongly influences how visitors encounter and interpret objects – a single object may appear evidence of a crime, as an artifact bearing the trace of its former owner, or as a precious art object. (Hansen-Gluckiclh 88).
The Artful Eye: Learning to see and Perceive Otherwise Inside Museum Exhibits focuses on three museums to explain the concept Bal puts forth, Yad Vashem (Jerusalem, Israel), the Jewish Museum Berlin (Berlin, Germany), and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) (Washington, D.C., United States) (Hansen-Gluckiclh 87). The purpose of these three museums, all located in very different places, is the same: “to visually depict the trauma and loss of the Holocaust to encourage empathy and remembrance rather than merely exhibit violent and often exploitive images” (Hansen-Gluckiclh 88). The USHMM is a “post museum”, a new type of museum in the modernist style that, “reflects on a modern epistemological framework by relying on a type of spatial presentation that dictates a systematic relationship between viewer and object” (Hansen-Gluckickh 102). Contrary to the conventional ‘grammar’ of museums that present a rational perspective to allow objects to “speak for themselves” – “post museum” spaces project objectivity (Hansen-Gluckiclh 102). The USHMM is a memorialist museum with a vocabulary that includes photographs, videos, and spoken/written words from the past.

Left: Hall of Names                                              Right: Tower of Faces

Hansen Gluckiclh contrasts the USHMM’s Tower of Faces exhibit with Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names exhibit in order to convey to the reader the effect the ‘grammar’ of museum spaces has on the viewer. The permanent exhibition at the USHMM takes the viewer on an emotional journey. Videos, photographs, and stray objects partner together behind glass walls and join with ambiguous words to present one of the greatest tragedies of modern history. Dim lighting, cramped corridors, and loud voices catch the viewer. The familiar ‘atrocity’ photographs trap the viewers’ attention as they read the familiar statistics learned long ago in school. However, these atrocity photographs are not the focus; photographs of survivors many years after the end of the Holocaust are hung with pride, their testimonies are projected on the walls, their names and faces are recognized. There is even a space dedicated to those who helped rescue and protect Jewish men, women, and children while putting their own lives at risk. As David Freedberg says, “the photograph… has a seemingly magical ability to capture… the ‘living presence’ – of an absent person” (Hansen-Gluckich 91). As we enter an era in which there is an exponentially decreasing number of Holocaust survivors, the ability to evoke the ‘living presence’ becomes increasingly more important.
The purpose of museums such as the USHMM is to keep the past alive. However, museums are not the only places that can serve this purpose; public memorials do this as well. Middelkoop and Pesko in their article, Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets and other Structures, discuss the role of monuments, memorials, and street names in commemorating the rich history of Amsterdam and the Netherlands (Middelkoop and Pesko). The Netherlands has a complicated history, much like many nations do. In order for powerful nations to emerge, some of their leaders engaged in atrocious practices abroad, however, they were still often seen as heroes and celebrated at home.
In Amsterdam, the Coentunnel (tunnel) is used by hundreds everyday as they commute to work. The Coentunnel is not the only structure in the city that bears the name of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the man who established the Dutch East India Company’s prominence during the seventeenth century by using violent methods; there is also Coenhaven (port) and Coenplein (square) (Middlekoop and Pesko). Structures such as the Van Heutsz Monument have been renamed in order to eradicate the culture of memorializing villains, however, there has been great opposition to renaming the Coentunnel – there are even plans to expand it (Middelkoop and Pesko). By keeping the name in place, the history of the Netherlands stays alive, it is discussed, it is debated. In this way, the Coentunnel serves an important function. The Dutch people need to come to terms with their role in slavery and colonialism, but coming to terms does not mean forgetting. It means learning from the past and the only way to learn from the past is to keep it alive.

The 2002-2003 exhibit Familieverhalen uit Zuid-Afrika: Een groepsportret at the Koininklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT) Tropenenmuseum (Royal Tropical Institute Museum) in Amsterdam worked to reframe the colonial past of the Netherlands. This exhibit was an attempt to present a more equal history of the people who lived in the colonies the Dutch created. The exhibit featured nine South African families and their unique stories and aspired to present their complex histories tand identities in their own way (Witz and Rassool 738-739). However, the Dutch title, Family Stories from South Africa: A Group Portrait, (litteral English translation of original Dutch title) and the English title, Group Portrait South Africa: Nine Family Histories, have slightly different meanings (Witz and Rassool 739). The Dutch title highlights the importance of the ‘family stories’ while the English title emphasizes the ‘group’ – a word used by National Party governments during apartheid as justification for exclusionary racial and ethnic polices, and therefore does not have the best connotations. A title of an exhibit plays a role in the ‘grammar’ of the exhibit just like the space does. The feelings evoked by these two different titles help to frame the exhibit before the viewer even steps into it; sometimes, it’s what attracts the viewer, or pushes the viewer away. By calling the exhibit a “Group Portrait [of] South Africa” the exhibit is reinforcing the ethnic/racial categories that it is seeking to challenge (Witz and Rassool 739). The title of an exhibit plays just as an important role in the ‘grammar’ of the exhibit as does the way in which the objects are hung. The two titles ‘Group Portrait’ and ‘Family Stories’ evoke two different reactions from the viewer and highlight the importance of a cohesive ‘grammar’ within an exhibit to effectively convey the intended message.
The intent behind the USHMM, Yad Vashem, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Coentunnel, and the exhibit Family Stories from South Africa: A Group Portrait is the same: to keep the past alive. The past is one of the most powerful tools humans have – to best serve the future we must learn from the past. Although the past may be cruel and difficult to remember, as it is with the Holocaust, slavery, and colonialism, it allows for growth. The gross injustices of the past stand today in the museums, statues, street names, parks, highways, and special exhibitions as constant reminders. These reminders are necessary. The ‘grammar’ of these objects presents them the observer/consumer in a way that best serves the future while still respecting the past.
References:
“Coentunnel Image.” Web. 10 June 2017. <http://www.qwa.nl/images/projecten/infrastructuur/Tweede_Coentunnel/Tweede_Coentunnel_03.jpg&gt;.

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer, The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise Inside Museum Exhibits, (2014).
“Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets and Other Structures.” Humanity In Action. Web. 10 June 2017. <http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/101-symbolic-objects-of-dutch-colonial-history-in-amsterdam-monuments-streets-and-other-structures&gt;.
Witz, Leslie and Ciraj Rassool, Family Stories or a Group Portrait? South Africa on Display at the KIT Tropenmuseum, 2002-2003: The Making of an Exhibition, (2006).

Images:

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer, The Artful Eye: Learning to See and Perceive Otherwise Inside Museum Exhibits, (2014).

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