Today I saw ten naked Danes. All shapes and sizes, genders, ages, etc. No, I didn't join a nudist colony; locals just feel comfortable wearing their birthday suits on the beach. We have reached a Baltic Sea coast town called Tisvildeleje, Denmark (good luck pronouncing it!). Our group is staying at a conference center/farm/wooded "kommune" out in the bush. It's beautiful here. Let's back-track for a moment back to the USA.
We spent the first 2 days of our program in DC. Most of our time was spent at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) because the scholars who designed and created the museum are closely tied to the organization and answered many of our questions about the museum. It's not everyday one has the opportunity to pick the minds of those who edit Holocaust history into museum format. They fielded all types of questions revealing the behind-the-scenes decisions, struggles, tensions, and processes that went into creating the museum.
I asked a question about something that has always bothered me about photos in museums. Historical museums will have captions under photographs explaining where the image is, who the image's characters are, and what is happening. As you can imagine, the images in the Holocaust museum were rather shocking, but some of them struck me as generally vague - the captions described a story that seemed very presumptuous. For example, an image of a Nazi guard standing in a court yard with a priest and a bunch of men sitting on the ground had a caption that said something to the effect of, "Monks in Bucharest held at gunpoint by a Nazi guard before being sent to a death camp." I wondered how the museum's creators knew those details about the photo unless they were specifically written on the image. SO I asked them how much of the image's captions are postulation vs. 100% true historical fact (any historian will tell you such a thing doesn't exist - sadly). The response surprised me.
They admitted that they do in fact do quite a bit of postulating, and shared a story that has frightening implications about the assumptions we make about how accurate museums portray history. Story goes something like this: a day before the museum opened in the early 90's, a large photo in the exhibition depicted what the caption described as women survivors leaving the Dachau concentration camp just after liberation. What surprised the curator about the photograph was that the survivors in the photograph looked in surprisingly good shape. A week into the opening of the exhibit, the museum's directors were approached by a film expert who told them the photograph was not an authentic. The museum's directors apparently were unaware that there was a feature length movie filmed at Dachau about its liberation, and it turns out the photograph was taken during the shooting of the film which was shot at the actual camp a few years after liberation, but was not an authentic image of the camp while under Nazi occupation.
Another admittance to historical tweaking was in reference to the children's section of the museum. It's called "remembering Daniel". This part of the museum is dedicated to the story of a child named Daniel. Turns out Daniel doesn't exist. The facts used to create his story were real, but his actual identity was invented - a fictive composite of different children's stories combined in a way to be most accessible and relatable to younger viewers. The main point is that the USHMM, probably like most museums, does not display 100% historical fact. It must be taken with a grain of salt, and the viewer should always be skeptical, but also respectful of the amount of work that goes into these things.
We flew over to Denmark today. Everyone around me knew nothing about Denmark, and I had a blast telling them all about the Danes on the plane ride, pointing at windmills, etc etc. I flipped when we bused past the old cycling route I used to take under a set of 30 windmills hugging the Baltic coast. I have to go now because my friends are waiting for me so we can go sleep. It's beautiful here.