Memorials and Museums of the Shoah

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  • The contemporary museum developed out of early private collections and aims to display objects which referred to distant cultures, they attempt to reconstruct the human experience in these cultures.
  • In reference to the Holocaust, there have been a wide range of strategies to exhibit the absense, due to the destruction of 6 million people and many objects pertaining to them.
  • These stategies are influenced by place and time.
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The Value of Objects

  • authenticity (may be useless with explanation)
  • uniqueness
  • beauty in themselves (our predisposition to like some things more is created by culture, museums can reinforce this tendency)
  • explanatory value (reconstructions have a great value in order to tell the story)
  • contextual value
  • relic value (appreciated or venerated for their association with a set of beliefs)
  • Personal aethetic judgement (rarity is significant)
  • Telling the story (rarity and authenticity are set aside)
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TRADITION - United States Holocaust Memorial Museu

The USHMM uses objects to reinforce each others' stories, their most significant object is a milkchurn from the Warsaw Ghetto, which was buried containing diaries, documents and papers which documented life in the Ghetto. When the Ghetto was sealed off 10% of its population starved to death and the rest were systematically exterminated.

Captions and audio guides are used to guide people about the object, it is presented in front of a reconstruction of the wall from the Ghetto and is surrounded by huge images to produce an impression of being there. A narrow corridor and reproduction of the 'work makes one free' gate are used to create a visceral effect on the visitor.

The museum director suggested that authentic objects are best because the provide strong historical evidence and have become 'silent witnesses' to the events.

Museum planners worried that individual stories would be lost amongst the mass tragedy, they wanted to personalise the Holocaust, by creating a tower of faces from a Lithuanian collection.

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Commemorative Objects and Collective Memory

There are many kinds of object which help to commemorate a person's life, the most obvious is a tomb, which may deteriorate over time without attention, if it is to retain meaning it must be cared for. This is also true to memory, they must be rehearsed or will fade and be forgotten. It is argued that forgetting is a large part of moving on after a tragedy, but collective memory of war or genocide makes this difficult. This has led to, in the last 20 years, an increase in monuments and memorials.

Objects and museums have a big role in preserving collected memory, the increase in memorials fills the need for collective memory.

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TRADITION - Memorial de la Shoah, Paris

This opened in 1956 and consisted of a walled-in courtyard with a mass urn containing ashes from the camps where Jews were killed as well as a memorial to the unknown martyr in a Star of David with an eternal flame. It also has an incription in Hebrew, suggestiing a specifically Jewish enviroment.

Following its instillation, negotiations went ahead to include a museum and archive on the site which opened in 2005. This has only occured since a public apology in 1995. It has a large section focussing on the French governement's support for the Nazi regime and recognises the attempts of ordinary citizens to support Jews (there is a list of those who did this called 'The Just'.

The musuem also has a hut from one of the camps and a machine used to grind bones, it uses personal stories and items to show life during the Shoah.

Its primary function is for Jews to mourn and reflect on the fate of their ancestors but it also aims to explain to the visitor what happened during the years and acts as an important archival resources.

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NEW - The Jewish Museum in Berlin

An international competition was announced in 1988 to design a museum for the Jewish, Libeskind won and aimed to use archictecture to reinforce the tragedy. He felt that the architecture alone was the only thing needed, artefacts were not nessesary to show his point, his aim to create a sense of disturbance in the visitor using visual and visceral techniques:

  • cut visitors off from the normal world
  • lengths of steel track
  • Memory Void - 10000 steel faces which have to be walked across
  • Axis of exile - garden with greenery out of reach, hope is there
  • Axis of the Holocaust - single objects as a tiny glimpse, ends in Holocaust Tower
  • Axis of continuity - 3 story staircase to show toil of labour camps (Mauthausen)

Libeskind wanted journey through archistecture alone but a traditional museum was installed at the top which educates visitors about Jewish history and loss, has recreations of Synagogs destoryed on Khristallnacht and gives information about those who attempted to convert like Albertine Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

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The Issues with Museums and Memorials

At a conventional memorial, members of a community can gather to commemorate. However, the jewish community was simply wiped out by the Nazis, so the memorials are often more about the guilt of the perpetrator than the suffering of the victims. This makes the memorials very controversial.

This has given rise to the idea of 'counter-monuments' which undermine the idea of closure, and refuse to allow people to lock up their collective memory.

For this reason, the competition to design the National Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was fierce, this was regarded as good because a perpetually unsolved debate showed an everchanging conculsion.

The issues such memorials embody are not resolved and shows that the rapid growth of memorials occured only after many of those who had passed un-noticed through 'de-Nazification' had retired.

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Monument Against Fascism and the Aschott Fountain

12m high square column covered in lead, created in 1983. This invited visitors to incribe their names as a commitment to never forget the murder of the Jews.

As the surface filled with names, the column was lowered into the ground, this demonstarted the idea that once the monument was gone it was up to people to rise up against prejudice. The fact that some of the responses were not appropriate showed all the more the need for a monument. The artists did not want a huge pedestal which persumed to ' tell people what to think'.

Equally, in Kassel, where Nazis had destroyed a fountain given by a Jewish man, a monument was created which buried a fountain upsidedown in the platz with water and partial glazing so visitors could see. This is an iconic statement on forgetting. The artist claims that one day the fountain can be set the correct way up when the Germans have changed their attitude to what happened during the period.

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Ullman's Bibliothek

This monument in Berlin is commerating the burning of books by students in 1933, these books were selected on political and ethnic lines. The monument consists of a buried room with empty bookshelves, accompanied by the quote from Heine 'where books are burned, in the end, people will burn'. It is illuminated at night, but is difficult to see during the day.

The artist belived that memorials only work is they are fully autonomous and don't require a plaque to explain them. His monument provokes reflection, and looks forward from the burning of books to the extermination of many Jewish intellectuals.

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The German National Memorial

Designed by an American architect, it makes no explicit reference to the Shoah and houses 2711 concrete pillars with which the visitor can do whatever they like, with the only information being contained in a underground information centre.

There was great tension during the competition and the inital winning design was overturned due to specialist and public criticism. A new comittee was set up and many probing questions were asked; eventually Eisenman's won and was orginally intended to incorporate 4000 pillars but he was asked to reduce this idea. 

However, problems are caused because the comparison to tombstones could be taken literally, so it would be a desecration to walk on them, but they have not been concecrated.

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Memorial des Martyrs de la deportation (Paris)

This memorial was designed for the many people who were deported from France on racial grounds and includes all groups as well as Jews.

It played on the iconography of the triangles worn by various undesirables and from a small grassy square visitors decend into a triangular courtyard which leads in a crypt with a corridor lined with lights which represent the mass of people, there are no names.

On either side are constricted, dark spaces which can be interpretted as cells or chapels and heavy slabs reveal the names of many camps. Due to the French government's denial, the guilt of the Vichy regime is not seen in this memorial.

The memorial aims to convey its message with minimum words and powerful suggestion. The ambiguity of its meaning, espeically the cells/chapels, allows visitors to make their own readings based on what they know and feel.

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