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Are Holocaust Museums Unique?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2016

Paul Morrow*
University of Virginia


Holocaust museums record and memorialize deeply affecting historical events. They can nevertheless be described and criticized using standard categories of museum analysis. This paper departs from previous studies of Holocaust museums by focusing not on ethical or aesthetic issues, but rather on ontological, epistemic, and taxonomic considerations. I begin by analysing the ontological basis of the educational value of various objects commonly displayed in Holocaust museums. I argue that this educational value is not intrinsic to the objects themselves, but rather stems from the extrinsic relations established between objects in museum exhibitions and displays. Next, I consider the epistemic, or knowledge-creating, function of Holocaust museums. I argue that the structure of public displays in such museums reflects the particular, document-based epistemology that continues to characterize Holocaust historiography and other fields of Holocaust research. Finally, I turn to examine taxonomic features of Holocaust museums. As I explain, both professional and ‘artefactual’ networks link the activities and display strategies of national, regional, and local Holocaust museums. A brief conclusion sketches some implications of my analysis for ongoing debates about the ethical function of Holocaust museums.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2016 

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1 Rosenbaum, Alan (ed), Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

2 These correspond closely to the categories of inquiry outlined by Gaskell, Ivan in his survey article ‘Museums and Philosophy – Of Art, and Many Other Things’, Part I and Part II, Philosophy Compass 7 (2012), 74102 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gaskell does not speak directly of museum ontology. However, his distinction between ‘hegemonic’ and ‘subaltern’ museums in his discussion of ‘cultural variety’ seems to me to be one example of a larger class of ontological distinctions.

3 These are: the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio; the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in Skokie, Illinois; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Imperial War Museum in London. My main research visits to these museums occurred during the five-month period from April to August 2013.

4 Lucas, F.A., ‘The Evolution of Museums’, Proceedings of the American Association of Museums (1907), 88Google Scholar. The Proceedings for the 1906 meeting make it clear that Lucas's paper was prepared for that meeting, but not read until the following year.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 89–90.

7 Ibid., 89.

8 Tim Cole reports that early reviewers of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington compared its images and displays on Nazi mass murder and medical experimentation to ‘peepshow[s] and snuff film[s]’. See Cole, Tim, Images of the Holocaust: The Myth of the ‘Shoah Business’ (London: Duckworth, 1999), 156Google Scholar.

9 Lucas does not define the term ‘educational value’ in his essay. In this paper I shall rely on an intuitive understanding of this term as the power of a museum object reliably to enhance the knowledge of ordinary (i.e. non-specialist) museum patrons.

10 Since Lucas casts his own argument partly as a contrast between mere ‘curios’ and proper museum objects, it would be a mistake to omit reference to the large literature on the development of modern museums out of early modern and enlightenment era ‘cabinets of curiosities’. See for example Daston, Lorraine and Park, Katharine, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 2001)Google Scholar; Zytaruck, Maria, ‘Cabinets of Curiosities and the Organization of Knowledge’, University of Toronto Quarterly 80/1 (Winter 2011), 123 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While I find this literature intriguing, I have attempted to develop my argument concerning the ontology of educational value on non-genealogical grounds.

11 Although this is clearly a ‘taxonomic’ specification it differs substantially from the kind of taxonomic question that I take up in the third section of this paper, which focuses on the categorisation of museums according to ‘type’, ‘kind’, or ‘purpose’, rather than according to ‘field of inquiry’. For a brief account of this distinction see Gaskell, ‘Museums and Philosophy’, op. cit., 77.

12 Conn, Steven, Do Museums Still Need Objects? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 4044 Google Scholar.

13 Gary Weissman describes the Holocaust variously as a ‘multiplicity of events’ and as ‘The Event’. This verbal variation indicates the conceptual complexity of the historical reconstructions undertaken by Holocaust museums. See Weissman, Gary, Fantasies of Witnessing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 26Google Scholar.

14 Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects?, op. cit., 40.

15 Young, James, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Bartov, Omer, ‘Chambers of Horror: The Reordering of Murders Past’, in Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 153186 Google Scholar.

16 See Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer, Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 128Google Scholar.

17 Cf. Bartov, ‘Chambers of Horror’, op. cit.

18 A similar gap in coverage marks many academic studies of Holocaust museums. Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich, in her excellent book-length study, gives little attention to non-Jewish targets of Nazi genocide. The explanation for this exclusion presumably resides in Hansen-Glucklich's general focus on the sacred, ritual qualities and functions of Holocaust museums.

19 See, for example, Lennon, John and Foley, Malcolm, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster (New York: Continuum, 2000)Google Scholar; Sharpley, Richard and Stone, Philip (eds), The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Tonawanda, NY: Channel View Press, 2009)Google Scholar; White, Leanne and Frew, Elspeth (eds), Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and Interpreting Dark Places (New York: Routledge, 2013)Google Scholar.

20 Historian Tim Cole criticizes the ‘chas[e]’ for boxcars by ‘Holocaust museums across the globe’ in Cole, Images of the Holocaust, op. cit., 164–65. He attributes the pursuit of these and other period objects to the tension most Holocaust museums face of furnishing, in an ‘artificial space, an authentic “Holocaust” experience’.

21 Stier, Oren Baruch, ‘Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19/1 (2005), 81106 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 These are: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC; the Florida Holocaust Museum in Boca Raton, Florida; the Dallas Holocaust Memorial Center [now the Dallas Holocaust Museum]; and Yad Vashem in Israel.

23 Ibid., 99.

24 Ibid., 90.

25 Ibid., 90–91.

26 Ibid., 98. See also Hansen-Glucklich, Holocaust Memory Reframed, op. cit., 140–142.

27 It is not entirely surprising to find the same strategy employed for the display of the boxcars at the USHMM and the Illinois Holocaust Museum, since the ‘co-conceptual designer’ of the latter institution, Michael Berenbaum, was himself the chief designer of the USHMM. I discuss this kind of professional involvement across museums in greater detail in Section 4 below.

29 For information on the opening of the IWM's Holocaust exhibit, see I visited the museum shortly after its (partial) reopening on July 29, 2013.

30 Some of the museums I visited went to considerable lengths to accentuate the symbolic effects of their boxcars. In the Illinois museum, for example, the boxcar not only stood in the centre of the chain of exhibits, but was also elevated substantially above the other museum displays. On the other hand, neither the Illinois museum nor the USHMM forces visitors to pass through the boxcar on their circuit through the museum (as some of the museums considered by Stier did, pursuing what he refers to as ‘initiatory’ effects). See Stier, ‘Different Trains’, op. cit., 86. The Illinois museum also resisted potential efforts to ‘simulate’ the deportation experience by placing a railing inside the car that permitted only perhaps a half-dozen people to enter at any one time.

31 Andrea Witcomb has written perceptively about the affective power of material qualities of models and other objects in Holocaust museums. Cf. Witcomb, Andrea, ‘Remembering the Dead by Affecting the Living’, in Dudley, Sandra (ed), Museum Materialities (London: Routledge, 2010), 3952 Google Scholar; Witcomb, Andrea, ‘Testimony, Memory, and Art at the Jewish Holocaust Museum, Melbourne, Australia’, in Golding, Viv and Modest, Wayne (eds), Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections and Collaboration (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 260274 Google Scholar.

32 In Steven Conn's terminology, these extrinsic relations are referred to as the ‘systematics’ within which objects are placed. Conn suggests that the ‘didactic value’ of a museum object comes from a combination of the ‘inherent meaning’ of the object, and the meaning constituted by its systematic relations to other objects. My own claim is somewhat more radical, insofar as I am arguing that the entirety of the educational value of a museum object (though not necessarily other symbolic or experiential meanings or values associated with that object) depends on the extrinsic relations into which that object is set. Conn, Steven, Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 2224 Google Scholar.

33 Of course, it may well be that the chief goal of Holocaust museums is not (or is not solely) to educate, but is also to memorialize, in which case other kinds of values, such as symbolic values, may hold at least equal status, and require a different set of display strategies. Establishing which value (or values) ought to take precedence in such museums is not, I take it, a question that can or should be settled by philosophical argument. For a good alternative perspective, see Hansen-Glucklich, Holocaust Memory Reframed, op. cit., 140–148.

34 Sandra Dudley, ‘Introduction,’ Museum Materialities, op. cit.

35 Constantine Sandis mounts just such an argument against British Museum director Neil MacGregor's defence of the supposedly unique educational value of ‘encyclopaedic’ collections in ‘universal’ museums. See Sandis, Constantine, ‘Two Tales of One City: Cultural Understanding and the Parthenon Sculptures’, Museum Management and Curatorship 23/ 1 (2008), 58 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Past President of the American Alliance of Museums, Ford Bell, seems to me to overlook both of these points in his comment on Sandis's argument against current efforts to justify ‘encyclopaedic’ museums and defend their holdings. Cf. Bell, Ford, ‘Comment’ on Constantine Sandis, ‘Two Tales of One City’, Museum Management and Curatorship 23/1 (2008), 9Google Scholar.

37 Linenthal, Edward, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 210215 Google Scholar.

38 As is well known, the prosecutors and judges at the IMT did not conceive of the offences they were trying in the same way that we now conceive of those offences; they did not have the term ‘the Holocaust’, and although they had some knowledge of the ‘Final Solution’, they did not construe the attempted genocide of European Jews as the central crime for which the German defendants should be prosecuted. Lawrence Douglas offers an extremely sensitive and probing reading of the successes, and failures, of the IMT in perceiving, and misperceiving, Nazi crimes against Jews and other target groups in the first three chapters of his The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in Trials of the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

39 Cf. Ibid.; Heberer, Patricia and Matthäus, Jürgen (eds), ‘Introduction’, in Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), xiiixxiii Google Scholar.

40 Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961)Google Scholar. Hilberg's book, which has gone through several substantial edits and expansions since its first publication, is perhaps best known to philosophers as the source of much of the historical detail in Arendt's, Hannah Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994)Google Scholar.

41 Saul Friedländer begins the first volume in his recent two-volume synthesis by citing Hilberg's influence – while noting the importance of also incorporating less formal documentary information about victims into Holocaust histories. Cf. Friedländer, Saul, Nazi Germany and the Jews Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution (New York: Harper Collins 1997), 335 n2Google Scholar.

42 Some of the most innovative, and influential, works of history were based on documents newly made accessible to researchers in the 1990s and 2000s. The best-known product of this new wave of research remains Browning's, Christopher Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993)Google Scholar. Several of the staff researchers at the USHMM in Washington first cut their teeth doing archival research in these newly opened repositories.

43 Douglas, The Memory of Judgment, op. cit.

44 Ivan Gaskell emphasizes the often neglected place of scholarly research in museums in Gaskell, ‘Philosophy and Museums’, op. cit., 86–91.

45 Because they are government employees, staff researchers are forbidden from accepting honoraria for these appearances.

46 Historians themselves have taken note of the power of this particular exhibit. See, for instance, Bloxham, Donald, The Final Solution: A Genocide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2526 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Already, the rise of digital technology, and especially digital document readers, gives museum curators the option of removing disparate documents from display cases and making them available through centralized terminals instead. This is an important development, but one I cannot address adequately here.

48 Stier, ‘Different Trains’, op. cit., 83.

49 Ibid.

50 Conn, Do Museums Still Need Objects?, op. cit., 20–58; Gaskell, ‘Philosophy and Museums’, op. cit., 76–79.

51 The one major exception I know of is Constantine Sandis's critique of the category of ‘universal’ or ‘world’ museums, mentioned already in Section 2 above. Cf. Sandis, ‘Two Tales of One City’, op. cit.; also Gaskell, ‘Philosophy and Museums’, op. cit., 92.

52 Goode, George Brown, ‘The Principals of Museum Administration’, Museum Association Proceedings, Sixth Annual Meeting (London: Dulua and Co, 1895), 100104 Google Scholar.

53 Henry, Joseph, Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1870 (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution), 34Google Scholar. Quoted in Orosz, Joel, Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740–1870 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 211Google Scholar.

54 Linenthal, Preserving Memory, op. cit.

55 Goode, ‘The Principles of Museum Administration’, op. cit., 100.

56 It is also accurate to say that curators and staff at USHMM feel obliged ‘not only [to] refrain from competition with’ state and local Holocaust museums, but also to ‘afford to them unreserved co-operation’. Ibid., 101.

57 Anne Karpf, ‘Bearing Witness’, The Guardian, 1/6/2000.

58 There are other significant differences: for example, while the USHMM gives nearly equal billing to the experiences of American liberators as it does to the experiences of Holocaust survivors and victims, the Illinois museum has only a very small display devoted to liberators.

59 Goode, ‘The Principles of Museum Administration’, op. cit., 102.

60 As the [now former] director of the Maltz Museum, Lynda Bender, told me, one of the most frequent comments she hears from non-Jewish visitors is that this first portion of the museum echoes fairly closely the experience of their own immigrant ancestors, whether of Irish, Italian, German, or other descent.

61 I have not visited the Leo Baeck Institute personally, and so am not sure how well this categorisation fits.

62 See Monroe, Kristen Renwick, Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 160161 Google Scholar.

63 Michael Berenbaum was the project director for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Yitzchak Mais was the director of the historical museum at Yad Vashem.

64 Lynda Bender, Personal Communication, 5/1/2013.

65 Goode, ‘The Principles of Museum Administration’, op. cit., 78.

66 Deborah Lipstadt discusses the decision by the USHMM not to display human hair salvaged from the camps in The Eichmann Trial (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), ixxi Google ScholarPubMed.

67 Amelia Wong discusses a proposal to create a social media account around the persona of Frank, Anne in ‘Ethical Issues of Social Media in Museums: A Case Study’, in Marstine, Janet, Bauer, Alexander and Haines, Chelsea (eds), New Directions in Museum Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2012)Google Scholar.

68 I have in mind here Oren Baruch Stier's discussion of the USHMM curators' discouragement of exercises in which schoolteachers attempt to recreate the deportation experience for students by packing large numbers of students into a space comparable to the size of a boxcar. Cf. Stier, ‘Different Trains’, op. cit., 92.

69 I first began thinking seriously about Holocaust Museums while on a Raab Foundation Fellowship at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many fellow researchers and staff members there provided insights. I am particularly grateful to Mark Celinscak and Istvan Pal Adam for helpful comments on an early draft of this paper, and to Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich for discussion of the final version. Lynda Bender, formerly executive director of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio, generously granted an interview. Further helpful comments came from participants in the Philosophy and Museums Conference at Glasgow, particularly Anna Bergqvist, and from Marilyn Friedman and Larry May, who read the penultimate draft. Pauline Tester and Janice Davis at the Harry Truman Library furnished the image from the Nuremberg Tribunal; Arielle Weininger at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center provided the image of that Museum's floor plan. Finally, I'd like to thank those friends and family members who provided accommodation and company during my many museum visits.

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