Control Issues: Memory and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Glenn Levy Photography;March 6, 2000; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Do museum curators have a right to be control freaks when it comes to interpreting sensitive or cultural history? After reading Preserving Memories by Edward Linenthal I came away with the question of who should control the memory of the Holocaust in the United States. The survivors? Or does authority lie with those outside of the events of the Holocaust such as museum curators?

In Preserving Memories, by virtue of its location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and its title, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) carries the American memory of the Holocaust.    As a museum, it also carries the weight of responsibility of interpreting the accurate history of the Holocaust. The overall interpretive narrative of the museum is meant to preserve the tragedy of the Holocaust in the minds of Americans through its exhibitions and the physical space itself.  According to the permanent exhibit creator Ralph Appelbaum, even the physical materials of the building—stone, glass and steel—are used to “create a ‘whole environment that supports the interpretive story…a play in three acts: Nazi Assault…Final Solution…and Last Chapter [1]’” The physical space, coupled with the powerful emotional interpretation allows the visitor to go on the journey that the victims of the tragedy went through during World War II [2].   As such, the interpretation of the memory of the Holocaust in this space lies primarily with the curators and designers. This authority of memory was acquired through the use of photographs and artifacts from survivors [3].  Utilizing these artifacts however, brought with it challenges, as the museum staff found that the artifacts were not without their own interpretive stories.  To use these artifacts, the museum staff found that they had to negotiate terms of control of narratives with the survivors.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Bridges from Wikimedia Commons

Do museum curators have a right to be control freaks in their own museum? Perhaps they do, when the content is not as challenging or as recent as the Holocaust.  Holocaust survivor and photographer Yaffa Eliach challenged the USHMM’s control over the interpretation of the exhibit “The Tower of Faces.” This exhibit uses photos of Eliach’s Lithuanian town of Ejszjszki, which was purged of its Jewish inhabitants during World War II first by the Einsatgruppen, then by Polish Partisans [4].  The museum staff wanted to use Eliach’s “survivor photos” to focus on the dramatization of the activities of the Einsatgruppen (Nazi killing squads) to tie in with the museum’s overall narrative.  As a survivor Eliach wanted to focus on preserving the living memory of her town instead [5].  Despite tension over the control of interpretation of that space and the photos themselves between Eliach and the museum staff, Eliach’s interpretation was ultimately preserved in the gallery.  She remained actively involved in the installation and planning of the exhibit [6]. The issue ultimately came down to ownership of the objects, the photographs which could convey the message of the gallery.  Though the exhibit worked in the space, should the curators have deferred to Eliach’s interpretation?  Certainly, if they wanted to use her photos they had to give her some consideration [7]. But her agenda did not initially support the museum’s narrative.  Was the museum right to hand over authority of the interpretation of this “objective” space to Eliach? Who should ultimately control the narrative of the Holocaust story at the National Mall?

Outside of museums control of the narrative of the Holocaust is mostly given to the survivors due to the authority of their own experience.   The testimony of a Holocaust survivor is often the strongest form of evidence and authority. However, what happens when the survivors themselves are not reliable? This was the case of Herman Rosenblat who lied to publishers about aspects of his Holocaust experience depicted in his memoir.  Publishers remarked that they did not fully fact check Mr. Rosenblat’s story, but accepted his story as a survivor of the Holocaust despite certain implausible details [8].

USHMM wants visitors to “not think about the exhibition as a ‘narrated interpretation of one particular view of the past.’’ [9]. By omitting stories that do not fit in with the interpretation of the narrative of the museum and adding those that many survivors would not want brought to light in the museum, the museum is in fact exercising its control over the memory of the Holocaust within the space. However, hopefully like the “Tower of Faces ” exhibit, the USHMM will do more negotiating and sharing of authority over the memory and interpretation of the Holocaust in the United States.

[1] Linenthal, Edward. “Chapter Four.” In Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, by Edward Linenthal, 167-192. Penguin Books, 2001. pg 168

[2] lbid., 168-170

[3] lbid.,171

[4]lbid., 176

[5] lbid., 184

[6]lbid., 184

[7] lbid., 184

[8] Rich, Motoko, and Joseph Berger. “False Memoir of Holocaust is Cancelled.” The New York Times, December 28, 2008: 1-2.

[9] lbid., 168

9 thoughts on “Control Issues: Memory and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  1. I think it’s interesting that they don’t want the museum to serve as a “narrated interpretation of one particular view of the past” when, in the article Appelbaum states that they decided to structure the museum as “a play in three acts.” While I understand the necessity of structure and cohesion, as well as the idea of building an experience for the visitor in a museum with such difficult subject matter, I too wonder who has the right to tell the story. In many ways, the objects and photographs on display speak for themselves, but at the same time, the objects chosen for display were carefully picked by curatorial and exhibit staff. In reality, I think the overall narrative has to be a blend–input from survivors, curatorial and exhibition expertise, and continual evaluation.

    1. I completely agree—curators must work closely with survivors and communities. Each party has something beneficial to bring to the table. Curators bring scholarly expertise, and a broad narrative framework (“a play in three acts”). Survivors bring their experiences and perceptions—none of which can be learned from a book or developed at a staff meeting. If curators and survivors work synergistically and can negotiate compromises (am I too optimistic?), I think that a broad, structured narrative and multiple voices need not be mutually exclusive.

      1. Two summers ago I was lucky enough to experience the cooperative efforts of museum staff and survivors at USHMM. While interning with NMAH, we took a tour with a museum staffer and then had a talk with a survivor. Our tour began with a guided walk through the main exhibition. As we were mostly museum people, the staff member pointed out a lot of the exhibition and curatorial decisions that were made. While I found this all interesting, the highlight by far was the talk with the survivor.

        The program we went to was one that they run multiple times everyday. I have heard several Holocaust survivors speak and each experience was truly illuminating. This particular instance was no different. This lady, whom had many of her family members killed before her own eyes by the Nazis, hated no one. She had no pent up anger. She appreciated life and knew that nothing good came from hatred. It was one of those truly reflective moments, where you look at your own world and re-evaluate how you view “hardships,” “complaints,” or “problems.”

        So I have experienced this collaboration or “shared authority” at USHMM. I do know that far too few visitors get to experience it, but I am pleased that it is there. To speak to a survivor adds another dimension to the complexity and horror of the Holocaust. It provides a living, breathing person who survived some of the worst of humanity and in turn has invaluable perspective on how we can confront and prevent genocide. Truly, no one can tell their story better than they themselves can.

  2. I completely agree that the Holocaust Museum (or any Holocaust Museum) must involve survivors in their interpretive process while still possible, in addition to preserving their stories through oral histories and other records for future generations. But I can’t help wondering sometimes if we just continue to feed the beast through these conversations.

    To whom does interpretation belong? Certainly the person who lived the story is a stakeholder. But so is the visitor, and so is the curator and the educator and every other museum professional. You ask whether the curator can afford to be a control freak in their own museum, and I think that the answer has to be yes. Ultimately the curator must bridge varied interests to present interpretation to the public. Yaffa Eliach did set restrictions on the viewing of her photographic collection, but the USHMM curators made the collection work in the space through the control of details. Many voices should be heard at the talbe, but in the end you need someone to bring everything together and reconcile the inevitable differences.

    1. Jill, I strongly agree with you. Because a museum’s collection in held in the public trust, the public must trust museum staff to interpret that collection and to craft the visitor experience. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be extremely difficult for museum professionals to convince people of that fact. In another section of Preserving Memory, Edward Linenthal talks about what happened to the first museum-trained staff member brought on board to work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She arrived after plans had already been developed and a strong concept for the Museum had been formed. By asking simple questions of the commission charged with developing the Museum, such as “Where are the bathrooms going to go?” she drew the ire of stakeholders who claimed she did not understand their vision. It took a long time for the commission to accept the input of museum professionals who were seeking to address issues of accessibility, education and visitor experience. It eventually happened, but not without a lot of debate, dialogue and drama.

      1. I agree as well that someone (most often a curator) needs to have a final say about the interpretation in an exhibit. Otherwise, you could have an exhibit that is disjointed or ineffective. However, I also think that it is essential that curators and museum professionals cultivate a healthy tension between themselves and other stakeholders. In order to improve exhibitions and increase that sharing of authority, museum staff need to encourage stakeholders to challenge them and make sure that their voices are being heard. I don’t see this as a choice between the staff have control or not. Rather, museum staff can maintain final say, while leaving many choices to other stakeholders.

  3. The museum made the right decision in allowing Eliach’s vision for her photos to be implemented. The “family album” feel of the photographs is, I’m sure, a welcome respite for visitors to the museum, and it helps the museum tell a more complete story. Using photos of only those people who were murdered in the Holocaust, as some staffers wanted, would have been unnecessarily morbid and somewhat untruthful. It’s no secret that some people, against all odds, did survive. The museum actively sought out these survivors for their experiences and should be applauded for doing so. I think it would have been misleading to work behind the scenes with survivors but then not include that part of the story in the arch of the museum.

    1. I completely agree that USHMM made a good decision in using these photographs to tell a more complete and personal story. Eliach’s involvement and restrictions, nevertheless, must have been frustrating for the museum staff. But this is what has to be done to give a democratic voice to the museum. It also allows the visitor to connect on a personal level. Above all, I think it is vital that USHMM and other Holocaust museums to remain in touch with survivors and their children in order to sustain a living, breathing institution. Both parties can help in the healing process too.

  4. The most powerful part of the photographs, to me, is the way it recreates a community. By allowing Elliach organize the photographs in a way that was true to the way the people in them interacted, the museum is able to show something we can connect to. Everyone connects to community on some level. These photographs recreate that real feeling, not just individuals or masses, but a community.

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