Holo­caust Mem­o­ry Reframed: Muse­ums and the Chal­lenges of Representation

Jen­nifer Hansen-Glucklich
  • Review
By – September 17, 2014

Lim­it­ing her focus to three major Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­ums — Yad Vashem, The Jew­ish Muse­um in Berlin, and the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in Wash­ington — the author describes and ana­lyzes each in terms of its mis­sion, archi­tec­ture, and exhibits and then com­pares and con­trasts them with one anoth­er on those terms. This is no small task and Hansen-Gluck­lich takes addi­tion­al effort to doc­u­ment her state­ments with quo­ta­tions from philoso­phers and schol­ars of the Holo­caust and crit­i­cal writ­ings on Holo­caust studies. 

The archi­tect Daniel Liebeskind’s exten­sion to the Jew­ish Muse­um in Berlin had the pur­pose of con­nect­ing the destroyed past to the present on the very land where the de­struction began. Its sym­bol­ism, often abstract (“The Archi­tec­ture of Absence”), is meant to con­vey to the vis­i­tor the sense of that destruc­tion and the dis­ap­pear­ance of a rich Jew­ish cul­ture that can nev­er be recov­ered. The author elab­o­rates on the the­o­ries of Decon­structivist” archi­tec­ture and con­cludes that Liebeskind’s build­ing express­es the trau­ma of the Holo­caust — a trau­ma made vis­i­ble through the series of voids through­out the muse­um.“ She con­trasts that with Yad Vashem where a pos­i­tive, even redemp­tive nar­ra­tive and sense of the sacred prevails.” 

Moshe Safdie’s redesign of Yad VaShem to include the Holo­caust His­to­ry Muse­um and the Children’s Memo­r­i­al and Memo­r­i­al to the Depor­tees all have what Hansen-Gluck­lich notes is a near-organ­ic rela­tion­ship to the land­scape.“ Ded­i­cat­ed in 2005, the new addi­tion is four times the size of the orig­i­nal 1957 Yad Vashem. Con­ceived as a repos­i­to­ry of mem­o­ry and an archive, it func­tions today as play­ing a crit­i­cal role in the Israeli civ­il reli­gion.” Much of Safdie’s archi­tec­tur­al design and instal­la­tions are meant to evoke the sense of return after exile — to real­ize force­ful­ly the home­com­ing to Zion/​Israel.

Opened in 1993, the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­rial Muse­um is can­did­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al. Accord­ing to one archi­tec­ture crit­ic, James Ingo Freed chose to make the con­tain­er one with the con­tained.” Not­ing that Freed grew up in Ger­many, the author claims that the images and mate­ri­als uti­lized are Freed’s way to cre­ate a build­ing that induces feel­ings of dis­com­fort and unease. 

The design of the USH­MM was severe­ly cri­tiqued by many as being too close to a theme park.” (Muse­um cul­ture is par­tic­u­lar­ly wary of being accused of Dis­ney-like dis­plays.) The author is crit­i­cal of the mas­sive quan­ti­ty of col­lect­ed authen­tic” objects, claim­ing the exhi­bi­tion shows too much, and ends up silenc­ing the ele­giac tone one expects and hopes for in a Holo­caust museum.” 

The role of arti­facts in Holo­caust memo­r­i­al muse­ums as well as the muse­um as a destina­tion point of a pil­grim­age are two impor­tant aspects of the author’s views on the muse­ums’ tak­ing on a qua­si-sacred identity. 

Hansen-Gluck­lich teach­es Ger­man lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Vir­ginia. Her exten­sive research into the sub­ject is impres­sive and her conclu­sions on the effec­tive­ness of the muse­ums are delib­er­ate­ly ambigu­ous. She cau­tions the read­er that the nar­ra­tives in the muse­ums do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the range of atti­tudes or views of the Holo­caust in Ger­many, Israel, or the Unit­ed States. This work is a notable addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture on Holo­caust memo­ri­als (most of which were pub­lished in the last cen­tu­ry), but is too schol­ar­ly to be read­i­ly acces­si­ble to the non-aca­d­e­m­ic who vis­its the muse­ums and could ben­e­fit from her analy­ses. Being famil­iar with the three muse­ums, I found the book thought-pro­vok­ing and insight­ful. Illus­tra­tions, notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

Relat­ed content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions