Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation

Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation

Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation

Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation


Holocaust memorials and museums face a difficult task as their staffs strive to commemorate and document horror. On the one hand, the events museums represent are beyond most people's experiences. At the same time they are often portrayed by theologians, artists, and philosophers in ways that are already known by the public. Museum administrators and curators have the challenging role of finding a creative way to present Holocaust exhibits to avoid clichéd or dehumanizing portrayals of victims and their suffering.

In Holocaust Memory Reframed, Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich examines representations in three museums: Israel's Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Germany's Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She describes a variety of visually striking media, including architecture, photography exhibits, artifact displays, and video installations in order to explain the aesthetic techniques that the museums employ. As she interprets the exhibits, Hansen-Glucklich clarifies how museums communicate Holocaust narratives within the historical and cultural contexts specific to Germany, Israel, and the United States. In Yad Vashem, architect Moshe Safdie developed a narrative suited for Israel, rooted in a redemptive, Zionist story of homecoming to a place of mythic geography and renewal, in contrast to death and suffering in exile. In the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Daniel Libeskind's architecture, broken lines, and voids emphasize absence. Here exhibits communicate a conflicted ideology, torn between the loss of a Jewish past and the country's current multicultural ethos. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum presents yet another lens, conveying through its exhibits a sense of sacrifice that is part of the civil values of American democracy, and trying to overcome geographic and temporal distance. One well-know example, the pile of thousands of shoes plundered from concentration camp victims encourages the visitor to bridge the gap between viewer and victim.

Hansen-Glucklich explores how each museum's concept of the sacred shapes the design and choreography of visitors' experiences within museum spaces. These spaces are sites of pilgrimage that can in turn lead to rites of passage.


In a personal meditation on exile and homesickness titled “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (1966) the Jewish, Austrian-born Holocaust survivor and essayist Jean Améry writes, “Anyone who is familiar with exile has gained many an insight into life but has discovered that it holds even more questions. Among the answers there is the realization, which at first seems trivial, that there is no return, because the re-entrance into a place is never also a recovery of the lost time.” In the original German, these lines reveal more poignantly the resonant echo between the words Wiedereintritt (reentrance) and Wiedergewinn (recovery), thereby ironically underscoring the abyss between the two concepts.

Améry’s deceptively simple realization returned to me suddenly, many years after first reading these lines, as I encountered for the first time Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum extension on Berlin’s Lindenstraße and observed the shattered Star of David that extends scar-like across its zinc facade. Faced with the task of designing a museum dedicated to German Jewish culture and history in Berlin—the very landscape within which German Jews were stripped of their citizenship and from which they were violently cast out into either exile or death—Libeskind created an extension that illustrates Améry’s insight with a poet’s economy of phrase. Time here is frozen—the shattered German Jewish relationship and culture lie in pieces, and a coherent narrative that might have connected past and present remains broken. The visitor may enter the museum and may survey the past by reentering, so to speak, the places of history depicted in the exhibits. However, as Améry admonishes us, although one may return to the places of the past, such a reentrance is never a recovery of lost time as well, and the rupture, or caesura, in German Jewish history remains irreparable.

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