Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stumbled Upon A Publication

I stumbled upon an article I had written for the Armenian Weekly. I didn't know they published this. Thought I'd share.
Link -


By Raffi Wartanian
"The Armenian Weekly", Volume 74, No. 26, July 5, 2007

Just a week ago I had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) under special circumstances in our nation’s capitol for the very first time. Through an organization called Humanity in Action (HIA), I received a fellowship to research and report on minority rights issues in France with a team of 10 fellows. The start of the program took place in Washington, D.C., where we devoted two afternoons to visiting the USHMM.

As for the special circumstance: Each day’s visit was followed by a question and answer session with three individuals who played an instrumental role in designing the museum—from the mise en scène to the selection of relevant historical information. These individuals included Dr. Joan Ringelheim, the museum’s former director of oral history and curatorial affairs; Dr. Severin Hochberg, historian at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the USHMM; and Sarah Ogilvie, director of the Institute for Holocaust Education.

The opportunity to pick the brains of these experts about their work on the museum since its congressional authorization in 1980 yielded fascinating information that otherwise would not have been evident from a standard visit to the exhibition.

I write this article because I want to share the fascinating things I learned. Genocide remembrance and commemoration are intricate issues that Armenians, Jews, Bosnians, and other victim groups of mass violence alike must confront and thoughtfully consider.

Throughout my life, I had heard the USHMM was not a pleasant place. Could it ever be? The very content of a Holocaust museum will inevitably cause a cringe, even in the most stoic of individuals. I thought that as an Armenian confronted by genocide and denialism my entire life, I might be less effected by the exhibition than the average viewer. It was a near-sighted expectation. Like many, I left the museum with a pit in my stomach—dazed, confused, shocked.

It turned out that Ringelheim, Hochberg, and Ogilvie(whom I will dub “the designers”) anticipated my response. The museum was, in fact, designed to evoke feelings of confinement, speechlessness, and remorse. The museum’s architerual layout was designed to reflect the architecture common to many concentration camps. Red bricks smeared with shades of grey jutted from a cold cement wall. Balconies overhead, naroowing staircases, and modest lamps evoked a powerful sense of confinement. The designers had hoped to set a melancholic tone complimentary to the exhibition’s dark content.

The narrowing staircase leading to the exhibition’s beginning was meant to mimic the train tracks leading to the entrance of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. A large engraving of a quotation from the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah situated next to the staircase read, “You are my witnesses.”

“If you’re a witness, you have to speak up, “ Ringelheim insisted. No matter what the scale, bystanders of injustice, she argued, should not sink into complacency. They must do what they can to stand up for the marginalized and disenfranchised, whether it is something as simple as calling a government representative, or something more consuming of our time and resources, like sending a care package to a locale of widespread suffering or housing refugees fleeing persecution.

The texts throughout the exhibition were penned in a way to keep the explanations as objective as possible. Adjectives were intentionally omitted. The attrocities speak for themselves, the designers explained, and the immense repository of historical artifacts (photographs, letters, deportation documents, and even shoes to name a few) depicted the tragedy far greater than any dramatic, adjective-laden text could have.

Historians, journalists, and human rights activists were not considered the target audience for the museum. Rather, it is the average American, « the farmer from Kansas, » Ringelheim noted. The exhibition is neither highly politicized, dramatized, nor manipulative. It is a rather straight forward rendering of a very sensative subject.

One question the designers grappled with was how to define a Jew. Reformist, Orthodox, Hassidic; from Russia, from Yugoslavia, from France, the Jews were not centralized in a single location nor did they manifest a uniform interpretation of their religion. Focusing on specific elements of European Jewry necessarily left out some of its other aspects. The practical limitations of presenting a topic as dense and vast as the Holocaust inevtiably led to the exclusion of important pieces of the narrative. Descriptions of Jews in Western Europe, Yiddish culture, and Jewish women were all topics the designers wished they could have spent more time exploring in the exhibition.

Interestingly, the USHMM’s first director, Jeshajahu Weinberg, had been a theater director in Israel where he had also done work designing the Jewish museums in Berlin and Warsaw before coming to America. Weinberg’s approach emphasized the visual language of the exhibition: the layout of documents, the organization of information level by level, the mise en scène of each room and between multiple rooms. Once in a while, empty rooms interrupt the progression of various sections, intended to allow a pause for the viewer, a space to decompress, to reflect—a tragey’s intermission.

The children’s section of the museum focuses on the story of a single individual, Daniel. We learned that, in fact, Daniel was a fictive character. His narrative was a composite of the experiences of many Jewish children, fused and edited to provide a character with which younger viewers can relate.

I asked the designers a question that has always occured to me whenever I’ve visited a museum, studied a photograph in a history textbook, or pondered the “certainty of history.” To what extent, I asked, have you postulated on the text descriptions accompanying photographs throughout the exhibition? I’ve always wondered how historians and curators assembled stories about photographs that seem suspended in time and place.

A scene of a Nazi guard standing next to a head priest and other monks sitting on the ground in a church courtyard. The caption at the USHMM for this image offered a specific year, a specific country, and explained that the priests were about to be sent to a death camp. The caption was quite specific for a photograph that seemed to me difficult to place.

The designers admitted that, as in most situations, the best a historian can do for a photograph lacking overt contextual indications is to carefully analyze the image. Who are the characters? What are are they wearing? What can we assume about their relationship? What are they doing? Where are they? These are all questions considered when searching for clues to reveal the identity of a historical photograph. Remaining uncertainties, the designers said, must be estimated to the best of our ability.

History is not as clear cut of an issue as many of us would like to believe. Competing interpretations, the manipulation of documents, and the obscuring of signifcant details begs a confrontation and reexamination of perceptions of history as fact.

But as humans, we need history. We need memory. Are the two mutually exclusive, or do they belong to the same cognitive constructs swirling between our synapses? History and memory consolidate identity, justify sentiments of belonging, and contribute to rationalizing our decisions. To throw into doubt such a critical component of our survival is perhaps more than the evolved human can tolerate and accept. But we must ask.

Our experience speaking with some of the USHMM’s designers revealed not just a wealth of fascinating facts about the museum, but penetrated to the depths of questions surrounding histor and memory.

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