Topic: Holocaust Museums
Jewish Museum Berlin.Museums dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims have been the most influential and prolific form of Jewish Museum to take shape in the past 20 years.
First, Jewish museums emerged as key pilgrimage sites for commemorating the Holocaust (J. Young, The Texture of Memory, 1993) and museums dedicated specifically to the Holocaust have since proliferated. Organized around a sacred mission to remember those who perished and to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future, Holocaust museums (not unlike the combination of museum and war memorial so common in New Zealand and Australia) combine museum and memorial, education and commemoration, and provide spaces for reflection and practices of a ritual nature. Some of these are personal, such as leaving a stone, as one would do when visiting a grave (Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York), maintaining an eternal flame (Jewish Holocaust Museum & Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia), playing an "original tape of prayers for the dead from Auschwitz" at a shrine (in an annex to the Sydney Holocaust Museum Gallery And Library); some are more collective, such as organizing commemorative services that include prayers, and according religious value to a visit to a Holocaust museum: "Enhance your community's connection to Av Harachamim prayers by taking a synagogue trip to a local Holocaust museum..."
As the Museum of Jewish Heritage explains, remembering is a "sacred Jewish obligation."
As one of the founders of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, a Jewish ethnographic (not Holocaust) museum, wrote in 1987 on the museum's 25th anniversary:
"I write as I do because the Holocaust, which some doubt, suppress, forget or banalize, and others remember but cannot encompass, was the dominant strain which led to the creation of the Magnes Museum. Something deep, with neither voice nor choice, had entered the realm of absolute knowing and assumed the value of a vow, and that vow carried within it the conviction to remember, even as it refused to suffer or grieve or accept sorrow as an everlasting epitaph for the Jew. Before the ashes there was life, and that life would be celebrated, and, perhaps, if we were lucky or meritorious or both, the act of celebration would constitute restoration of the name and serve to sanctify it. "
Indeed, it has been argued that in the post-Holocaust period, all Jewish museums become Holocaust museums, whatever their stated focus and mission. The Magnus Museum, it should be noted again, is an ethnographic museum, not a Holocaust museum.
Holocaust museums have become paradigmatic for those seeking models of how to present genocide and other human catastrophes in a museum setting. This can be seen in the use of Holocaust museums as a reference in debates around the creation of museums of slavery, and the centrality of Jewish and Holocaust museum professionals within the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience (an initiative of Ruth Abrams, who established the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). The Coalition was created during the late 1990s. A historic site of conscience is defined as follows: "Whether it interprets great good or great evil, whether it preserves a cultural or an environmental resource, a historic site has unique power to inspire social consciousness and action."
The concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is a core concept in Judaism, and commitment to social justice, ethics, humanitarian values, and human rights is particularly important to Reform Judaism's self-definition. This ethos informs Jewish museums, whatever their denominational cast, and to Holocaust museums in particular. See Ralph Appelbaum, designer of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's permanent exhibition, on the museum as moral artifact, in his lecture "Anthropology, History and the Changing Role of the Museum," International Conference on Anthropology and the Museum, Taiwan Museum, Taipei, 1995:
Holocaust museums, like the Holocaust itself, are informed by what has been called "Holocaust piety" and by "Holocaust theology." Sensitivities governing how the Holocaust can be presented--what can and cannot be shown and how--lead to controversies such as those surrounding Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery, Recent Art at The Jewish Museum which was called sacrilege.