The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum & the Display of Memory

In last week’s Identity and Activism class discussion, many ideas on narrative, memory, and exhibit design were explored, specifically concerning the material that is presented at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. The Holocaust has been presented in textbooks, lectures, and classrooms for decades. However, with new and innovative uses of storytelling and technology, the Holocaust is being presented in formats such as podcasts, spoken word poetry, oral histories, graphic novels, and even through the architecture of the USHMM. These different sources of history and storytelling can access new and diverse audiences. Not all of these methods are appropriate for specific situations and could depend greatly on the intended audience. The USHMM makes use of different avenues to tell a compelling and vital account of the Holocaust.

As a class we discussed the impact of the building that housed these stories, and how it was used to create a thought-provoking and meaningful experience for the visitor. The design for the physical space within the USHMM drew inspiration from “the architectural language found in the death camp buildings.” [1] This, almost oppressive style leaves the museum visitor with no escape from the troubling story that is displayed within the building. Upon the opening of the museum, a New York Times article describes the impact of the architecture on the visitor, “It is oppression in its extreme, most crushing form, and also the unsettling power of truth.” [2] The permanent exhibition works within the stark architecture. Additionally, the choices that were made by the design team for the exhibition space within the building were very deliberate.


Luggage Tag
Luggage tag used by Jewish girl, 1938.

This discussion had me questioning design elements, both in exhibition and architectural styles, and their unintended impact on visitors. One memory left an impactful impression on the visitor when the abandoned luggage of Jewish refugees held the same last name as a family friend who was also at the museum that day. I wondered, how could the exhibition team know what kind of impact the display had on this particular visitor and perhaps, others like them? Clearly, not every eventuality can be planned for when implementing an exhibit. Nevertheless, I believe that these important, if unintentional, connections can be made through successful collaboration. Not just collaboration between staff, visitors, researchers, and donors, but collaboration of space, materials, artifacts, and narrative.

In class, we also discussed the possible selection of artifacts for museums or memorial spaces such as the USHMM. How could one possibly choose to highlight one story over another, spotlight one artifact, or focus on one person? This led me to consider the importance of scale and representation within museum exhibitions. In spaces like the USHMM one tale is unique among millions but as museum professionals we must be cognizant of what that one story can come to signify. Much like the story of Anne Frank has come to represent more than a tragic tale of a young victim of war. These stories, or artifacts can take on a deeper meaning in places of memory.

The USHMM is our nation’s tribute to those who perished in the Holocaust. However, the tale that is told inside this striking building communicates more. It is a unique space that explores the harrowing experiences of the individual, a population, and even the globe through creating powerful dialog of social justice.


[1] Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. 1995. “Understanding the Holocaust Through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” Journal of Architectural Education. 4(48): 246.

[2] Muschamp, Herbert. 1993. “Shaping a Monument to Memory.” The New York Times (New York, New York), April 11, 1993.


Featured: The Main Hall of the USHMM,

Luggage Tag:

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