Museums and Preserving Memories

Hall of Names
Source: https://www.yadvashem.org/archive/hall-of-names/shoah-victims-names.html

This week’s readings shed light on how we see things and how we remember. In Jennifer Hansen-Gluckich’s book, Holocaust Memory Reframed, we learn about the exhibitions of Yad Vashem, the Jewish Museum of Berlin, and the USHMM. Gluckich examines how these museums are designed with the intention of creating meaning and how each of the museums use aesthetic and spatial techniques to tell stories of the Holocaust. I found Gluckich’s reading incredibly interesting and really liked how she explains installation techniques, and how they can shape a viewer’s understanding of an exhibit. For example, in her discussion of the Tower of Faces and Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, Gluckich demonstrates how these two installations – both of which present powerful photographs of victims of the Holocaust – evoke different emotional responses from viewers.

The Tower of Faces consists of a three-story high tower, filled with photographs of ordinary life in a Jewish town before the Holocaust. Gluckich explains, “visitors connect to these photographs in a personal, intimate way; they remind us of the old black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs of our own grandparents and great grandparents” (Gluckich, 94). Visitors return to the Tower of Faces a second time, after passing through exhibits on the ghettos and concentration camps, and after reading a text about the first Holocaust victims. According to the reading, “[photographs in the Tower of Faces] no longer reveal glimpses into individual lives but rather project the image of a single great catastrophe. The power of human portraits to evoke empathy in their viewers is here eclipsed by the exhibit’s aesthetic technique, which transforms each individual into a fragment in an artfully rendered mosaic of loss” (96). Furthermore, the design of the Tower, a three-story high ascension of pictures, reinforces the massive loss of individuals among a sea of anonymous faces. In Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, on the other hand, there are names accompanying the photographs of the victims of the Holocaust. Accordingly, Gluchick explains that here, “the power of living presence strengthens the ability of viewers to empathize and even identify with the victims” (100). The Hall of Names aims to give identity back to the victims of the Holocaust, those who had been horrifically stripped of all identifying features and reduced to numbered labels. Alternatively, the Tower of Faces “imitates the structure of a traumatic memory”. These experiences in their entirety evoke a range of emotions and a total artwork experience [Gesammtkustwerk] (103).

Melissa Weiner examines how national memories of slavery and colonialism are preserved in Dutch textbooks and remembered throughout history. Weiner’s study reminds me very much of the way slavery is remembered in the United States and how history is remembered in the Southern United States compared to the Northern United States of America. Several years ago, there was great outrage over the fact that Thomas Jefferson was being removed from textbooks in Texas. Weiner’s reading also made me think about the symbolism of the Confederate flag. I have come across many Southerners who believe that the flag represents southern pride. On the other hand, I have been taught that the confederate flag symbolizes the southern states breaking from the Union because they wanted to preserve slavery. Weiner contends that, “given the long-documented role of education in shaping children’s radicalized conceptions of their nation, realities, and identities, these textbooks reveal the radical neoliberal foundation that young adults in the Netherlands today encountered and that with which the current generation of Dutch children will be embedded” (345). I agree with Weiner that education lays the foundation for shaping national identity and for setting up the foundation for a future that can learn from it’s past. Here I think the Beasley article fits in nicely. In “The City as Museum and the Museum as City,” Larry Beasley discusses turning cities into places where people can convene to learn about city issues and actively participate in their space. Beasley proposes that urban planning include historical elements which can help citizens engage in their city’s culture and development. Beasley proposes creating places where people can come together and learn about city issues, debate change, and review development projects that impact the cityscapes daily.

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2 thoughts on “Museums and Preserving Memories

  1. I found your summary of Gluckick to be very incite full and caught my eye. Specifically, the quote you found on the impact that a living presence can have on viewers to empathize more for the victims. I also found your contrast on effects of whether or not an exhibit had names of the victims and how that affected the impact that it left on the visitor. I enjoyed your connection back to the United States with Weiner’s piece. I agree that it did sound very similar to how we commemorate United States slavery and racism that occurred. I enjoyed your interaction with Weiner’s and Beasly’s Articles on how museums and textbooks shape its viewers perspectives. That is why it is important as you discussed from Weiner’s and Beasly’s article to analyze what the museums and textbooks are depicting and whether or not the depiction is a narrow view of what actually occurred. I wonder if Gluckick could be tied into this section? I wonder if Gluckick would believe that the museums that she discussed display an accurate and expansive depiction of what occurred?

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  2. I particularly liked your analogizing Weiner’s discussion of Dutch slavery to the United States’. I’ve always been bewildered by those who proudly display the Confederate battle flag and say, “heritage, not hate.” My family is German and I have never once thought to myself, “I should get a Nazi flag to honor my great heritage.” The flag is a symbol of hate and resistance to abolition (some will argue the Civil War was fought over the 10th Amendment and state’s rights. This is true, but the right in question was slavery). I think this indicates how even farther behind the curve we are compared to the Dutch. They don’t have a sizable minority of their citizens applauding the greatness of the slave era or making death threats over the removal of statues depicting slave owners. I will say, however, that this raises the question of where the line stands. I’ve encountered many in our academic circles at GW who think Washington and Jefferson are horrible people who should not be held in high regard because of their slave owning. Some simply feel this way about Jefferson who was by all accounts a vicious slave owner who sexually exploited his slaves, while Washington decreed their emancipation after his wife’s death in his will. I’ve even been criticized for mentioning this difference as somehow justifying slave owning by lumping it into good and bad camps. Bottom line is that this is a difficult subject to discuss and framing is just as important as content. While it’s clear to those of us in the educated elite that driving down I-85 with a Confederate flag waving in the back of your pickup truck is not appropriate, we do still have fierce debate over how we should discuss and present these difficult topics (especially to children). I advocate for entirely removing one’s political agenda (like Beasley’s) and simply reporting as much of the story as possible. This, however, is not always advisable. Recently new research has suggested MLK Jr. was aware of, and perhaps even incited, a sexual assault in a Washington, DC hotel. Is this worthy for discussion in a textbook? Despite my belief in factual quantity, I would argue that this information (which is far from conclusive) would severely damage MLK’s credibility to the point of people learning even less about history. Furthermore, what’s relevant about MLK is not his personal life but the great work he accomplished. The latter could be eclipsed by the former. This is an example of my harboring a historical political agenda so I am even not above violating my criteria of historical analysis.

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