Friday, April 8, 2011

Rothstein, Wecker (& Gruber) on Holocaust Museums

Los Angeles, Ca. Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Photos: Samuel Gruber (2011)

Rothstein, Wecker (& Gruber) on Holocaust Museums
by Samuel D. Gruber

The New York Times recently ran a thoughtful and thorough review of the new Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. Unlike several previous articles in other publications that deal mostly with the architecture – or architecture as landscape – Edward Rothstein mostly discusses the exhibitions, presentation and tries to find underlining themes and messages beyond the specifics of Holocaust chronology and the generalities that such an event should happen “Never Again.” In an on-line post-script to the times articles Menachem Wecker has posted related piece in the Houston Chronicle. Both articles ask the question are there too many Holocaust Museums? (and perhaps by extension, too much Holocaust?), and more delicately, what is the role of a Holocaust Museum so many years after the main event, and especially now as the last generation of survivors ages and dies.

Both authors see the continued need for Holocaust education, and the role museums can play. And yet as Rothstein says, despite all the new museums “at the same time exaggerated and wrong-headed Holocaust and Nazi analogies have proliferated at an even greater rate than the museums themselves. It is as if familiarity is breeding analogy, and analogy is unaffected by how many institutions.”

Of course it is foolish to think museums are going to stop intolerance. At best they can provide the information and narrative needs for individuals and groups to defend against ludicrous denials, and to take the offensive to teach a new generation. Even the best museums – as places one chooses to go to – are essentially passive and reactive. Museums need the response of the individual mind and heart to “turn on” what they offer. Museums can be repositories of memory, but they are not memory themselves any more than a hard drive full of stored data represents real intelligence and knowledge. But the need for such repositories is essential; they are the well to which thinking people must continually return to confront horrible truths.

Should Holocaust Museums be changing? The first were opened decades ago in a pre-digital age. Museums must, of course, keep up with the times in order to maintain and expand their audience. But unlike many museums, Holocaust museums were founded on a moral truth, with a moral center. They must not deviate from this, they must not dilute their story, they must not pander for audience and commercialize their content. Holocaust museums occupy a borderland on the edge of sacred space but dangerously close to entertainment centers. It is a line that is crossed at great peril. Our recent and ongoing wars have already been turned into video games. What next? Curators beware.

MUSEUM REVIEW; Bearing Witness Beyond the Witnesses

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN (March 24, 2011), The New York Times

LOS ANGELES -- Is the Holocaust too much with us? Or if not the Holocaust, then Holocaust museums?

It can sometimes seem so. The Association of Holocaust Organizations has 293 institutional members around the world, each at least partly devoted to commemoration. The association counts 16 major Holocaust museums in the United States, in Richmond, Houston, New York, Washington and other cities to which Jewish survivors immigrated after World War II. And they are still being built. Two years ago the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opened near Chicago. And last fall the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust opened here in a new $15.5 million building. It is actually the city's second such museum; the other, the Museum of Tolerance, examines the Holocaust's connection to its main theme and welcomes 350,000 visitors a year.

But the answer to these questions is not easy for it seems that while almost all of these institutions have developed out of the desires of survivors to offer testimony, command remembrance, educate the young and ensure that nothing similar occurs, at the same time exaggerated and wrong-headed Holocaust and Nazi analogies have proliferated at an even greater rate than the museums themselves. It is as if familiarity is breeding analogy, and analogy is unaffected by how many institutions meticulously survey the horrors of calculated, systematic murder on a mass scale. The new museum here, in Pan Pacific Park, not far from the traditionally Jewish district of Fairfax Avenue, should not, of course, bear the brunt of these broodings. It does, however, in its successes and failures, indicate some of the challenges that will face Holocaust museums when there are no longer any remaining survivors and they commemorate a receding historical trauma.

The Holocaust museum here is a strange hybrid, for not only is it the country's newest, it is also, its literature asserts, the oldest, tracing its origins to 1961, when a group of survivors studying English as a Second Language at Hollywood High School decided it would be important to display some of the objects that had survived with them and that might, in a museum setting, bear witness.

Read the Whole Story Here

Skokie, Illinois. Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. Photos: Samuel Gruber (2010)

Experts: Don't say 'never again' to Holocaust museums

By Menachem Wecker (March 31, 2011) Houston Chronicle

Must Holocaust museums evolve as they approach an age without any living survivors? As the Nazis recede further into the past, is there a danger of museums devoted to Holocaust memory becoming static?A recent New York Times article by Edward Rothstein raised these provocative questions and has some experts worried about the view that Holocaust museums need to become more than one-trick ponies.

"When you say that a Holocaust museum must not be static you're implying, very strongly, that being static is bad," says Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Stagnancy could mean bankruptcy for clothing designers, but what's true of fashion isn't true about the "catastrophic vulnerabilities of human nature," says Reich, now a professor at George Washington University.

"That history and those vulnerabilities are fundamentally static," he says. "It should be portrayed in a way that depicts exactly what happened. It should not become a vessel for current trends, concerns or fashions and should not stop being a museum about a discrete historical event."

Ira Perry, director of marketing and public relations at the Holocaust Museum Houston, agreed.

"Holocaust museums do not necessarily need to evolve into something else," he said. "They serve a distinct role in honoring the victims' histories and the survivors' legacies."

Read the whole story here.

Also Gavriel Rosenfeld's October 2010 review of the Los Angeles Museum's architecture, publishing the The Forward, before the official opening.

Stealth Museum

The New Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Gives New Meaning to Green Architecture

1 comment:

Mw said...

Thanks for linking my story (which was in print as well as online)! I should have solicited a quote from you for it. Next time?