A Museum for Today, a Museum for Tomorrow

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“Never Again,” Dachau Concentration Camp. Photo by author.

 

I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time this past summer. I wandered the exhibits for the better part of three and a half hours, and what I saw could only be described as revolting, terrifying, and extremely disturbing. Did the exhibits go too far? What is the point of reliving such senseless violence? Do we go to convince ourselves that we would have been better- that we would have stood against it? The whole experience was marked by an incredible range of emotions, and it was one I will not soon forget.

Millions of people have asked the same questions of themselves in the Holocaust Museum. While many fear that the exhibits serve only to distance us from the actual events of the Second World War, it is nearly impossible to find someone who has been to the Holocaust Museum who has not had some sort of intense reaction to what they saw there.

In my opinion, however, what happens at the Holocaust Museum goes far beyond soul-searching. Even though many worry about the potential distance between us and the objects used to tell this story, the Holocaust Museum is not a museum to which we go to relive the past. We can, however, ensure that “never again” means just that. The Holocaust Museum encourages us to look to the future, and to ponder the consequences of hatred and injustice.

What do you think? Should museums try to be advocates for the future, or should they remain rooted in telling the stories of the past?

-Drew R.

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6 Responses to A Museum for Today, a Museum for Tomorrow

  1. Paige says:

    I haven’t been to the Holocaust Museum. Nor have I read the mission statement, but if I were guessing, I’d say the purpose is to try to begin to undo some of what American history has done to American memory. Enough sugar coating, already! If America behaved badly on a national or international level, militarily or otherwise, tell us. Show us. The good with the bad… I say, let’s try knowing a more singular truth on a national level for a change. The not so truth surely hasn’t gained us any ground on unifying our nation,

    • radtkedrew says:

      Hi, Paige! Thanks for your thoughts; you make some really interesting points in regards to American culpability in the 1940’s and our modern responsibility to accurately remember the Holocaust. I’d encourage you to visit the USHMM, as part of the exhibit touches on the decision not to bomb Auschwitz, as well as individual efforts on the part of several nations to get Jews and their families out of Europe. That being said, I think you can make an effective argument that the American response to the Holocaust is lacking from the museum. Which gets back to my point: is the USHMM a museum that focuses on the past, or looks to the future?

    • gretchensorin says:

      Paige, THank you for your comment. I think you have the right idea. The truth is so much more interesting than the politically expedient. Sure we’ve behaved badly as a nation, we’re human beings. The key is that we learn from our mistakes and the only way to do that is to accurately depict the story. I think the question that some have raised is whether we use the story to show how righteous we are/were during World War II. Instead of feeling righteous we should ACT in response to current incidents of genocide.

  2. mmpaulus says:

    Drew you make some interesting points regarding the Holocaust Museum. I am curious as to your statement that “many worry about the potential distance between us and the objects used to tell this story.” In my mind many of the objects in the museum were universally understood objects, such as shoes, patches, the boxcar and bunks from concentration camps. That is part of what made the impact of the museum so intense. I would argue that the museum’s objects allows a personal connection for the vast majority of visitors.

    • radtkedrew says:

      Thanks for responding, Michelle! The comment you cited came from an article we discussed in class in which the author argues that objects which pack such an emotional punch, if you will, actually distances us from the history. I agree with you that some objects speak for themselves. The ones you specified, for example, need little in the way of interpretation to connect people to the story of the Holocaust, and inspire them to think about the abuses which continue today and tomorrow.

  3. hoffed04 says:

    We are always discussing how museums need to remain relevant. Relevant to what? My guess is that they need to be relevant to the present day. To be relevant, you have to have significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand. When I visit a museum, there needs to be something I can relate to. So I do not think it is wrong for museums to address current issues or suggest advocacy. The danger I could see is if the museum presents a very one-sided argument. Ultimately, it should be for the visitor to form their own connections between the past and the present, and decide where they fall on the issue. It is up to them what lessons we learn from our past and how to apply them in the future. Like many other things in life, it is balancing act and museums have to learn how to walk that fine line.

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