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 ’” 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 . 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 . 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.
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 .
USHMM wants visitors to “not think about the exhibition as a ‘narrated interpretation of one particular view of the past.’’ . 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.
 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
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 Rich, Motoko, and Joseph Berger. “False Memoir of Holocaust is Cancelled.” The New York Times, December 28, 2008: 1-2.
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