June 14th, 2008 § 0 comments

They don’t recommend bringing children under 11 to the Holocaust museum in the National Mall, and I can understand why. I have wanted to visit for quite some time, a desire left over from my days of unhealthy indulgence in death, memorials, and monuments commemorating memorialized events. My initial response to the museum was a slew of questions concerning the artistic decisions of the architect, James Freed, and the curators of the main exhibition. I was surprised to learn the museum opened in 1993, it seemed such a landmark of respect in Europe that I assumed it was much older. The building was perhaps most interesting to me because I have seen most of the “exhibition” content before. Its design was inspired by, but apparently not meant to reference, camps, historical sites, etc. found in Europe, and I was surprised it was so similar to the museums in Berlin. Light was controlled, leading from darkness and claustrophobic spaces into hallways of bright, natural light. The exhibition began on the forth floor and spiraled downward with the chronology of the war. I was interested in skylights, triangular windows, and the use of glass. Transition spaces broke the mood, and corporate looking carpet led to the next floor.

The museum stated they wanted to use, but not rely on, artifacts. This is certainly true, and I think I missed the tangible traces of forgotten objects so prevalent in European museums. Most of the objects were on loan, mostly from places I knew. I liked, however, most of the rare rooms filled with objects, and the way they were used with the building. Three stories of collected photographs from a town, the headstones of a graveyard somewhere in Poland, the gates and doors of destroyed buildings, a floor filled with stale smelling shoes. The light and space of all these rooms contributed to a feeling of ethereal fragility and haunting permanence. The objects so tangibly there spoke of things that have been gone for a while now. The hall of images was caught by light from a sinking sun, and showed a thick and lovely layer of dust on the images.

holocaust museum

The rest of the museum was made up of mass media, calling itself a “story-telling museum”, and that’s just what it is. The presentation reminded me of a film. It had a nice condensed plot, an over-simplification of the rise and fall of the Third Reich, everything was in an order, nothing was out of place. In low light and set against black walls were posters, images, stories, facts, films, and speeches. Horrific acts became more and more pronounced as the years passed, finishing with a mock Auschwitz. When I had to peer into a well-like structure to see three tv screens of mangled women I had enough—what was a real horror is now a horror film. Dismissal seems universal, as I watched high school students at Dachau playing games in the crematorium, and American high school kids text messaging friends.

I know from personal experience that I was viewing a carefully picked through assortment of facts, finger-pointing, and exclusion. There seems to be a fine line between what feels real, what looks real, and what is real. The content was so over-the-top it felt real enough to be fake—like a good blockbuster should. I wish the museum had not tried to be what it wasn’t, mimicking a concentration camp is ridiculous. Everything in the museum was overly important, nothing was just there, and I missed walking through long corridors in Berlin filled with meaningless notes and just stuff. Contemplating loss does not meaning viewing large, overbearing images of SS officers with dogs, it means trying to fathom the reality of the lost.

The mission of our national museum is to convey the “fragility of freedom and democracy,” and somewhat fittingly, it felt like a museum of terror. By making us “aware” it seemed to be saying look what other places do and how we stopped them. I wondered why we don’t have a museum dedicated to the atrocities committed in the Vietnam war to help us with our “awareness.”

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