When Joseph sent me the January 2012 issue of Theory, Culture & Society, I couldn’t help but notice its applicability to our class and this assignment.
This issue of Theory, Culture & Society aims to examine the modern museum (the new museum) as a locus for curating memories. In the introduction, Jens Andermann and Silke Arnold-de Simine describe major themes of the new museum including, but not limited to:
- a shift from master narratives to practice-based memory-making
- applied theatrics and multimediality with the purpose of evoking empathy
- the focus on narrative and testimony
- the conflation of museum and monument
- global aesthetics of remembrance and mourning (i.e. curating a sense of universal memory around atrocities)
Grounded in what Paul Williams describes as an era of atrocity museum expansion, curators have had to grapple with the slippage between exhibitor, spectator, and object. This collection responds to the use value of and problematics of Marianne Hirsch’s postmemory (see The Generation of Postmemory) and Alison Landsberg’s prosthetic memory (Prosthetic Memory), concepts which have informed the creation of atrocity museums and have contributed to new modes of representation and curation.
“Memory Museum: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz“
In her piece, Arnold-de Simine describes how the conflation of museums and memorials transfers into other memory media (like art and literature). Based on the assumption that memory is reimagination, Arnold-de Simine challenges the assumption that memory museums are spaces of memory. Rather, she asserts that the memory museum has subgenres that are multimedial and intermedial. For Arnold-de Simine, the memory museum:
- frames historical events to make sense of current issues
- makes the story the object exhibited (rather than the literal objects within it)
- uses the position of the witness to evoke an aura of authenticity
- uses spectacle/theatrics to turn primary sources into illustrations
- emphasizes a sense of immediacy
- closes the gap between the living and the dead
- aims to represent the victims and their descendants, especially through the use of memorabilia and oral testimony
- uses autobiography to turn museum-goers into secondary witnesses
- uses empathy to evoke engagement and a moral imperative
Regardless, Arnold-de Simine claims, the memory museum is limited. She incorporates examples from Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum, which intended to be read as a text, and W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, which was written as a museum, to complicate the limits of media and memory-making.
Arnold-de Simine’s attention to Libeskind’s use of literary symbolism and Sebald’s emphasis on secondary witnessing (the main character in Austerlitz literally does not witness the Holocaust) makes very clear the ways that memorializing and museum-making transfers across genres and how other media forms work within museums. I found this challenging, especially in my endeavor to understand the ways memories are curated, politicized and passed along to subsequent generations. In searching for images from the Jewish Museum, I felt haunted and disoriented. I found Libeskind’s use of analogy riveting and effective/affective. Before reading this journal I was a loyal fan of Hirsch’s theories (and furthermore, Avery Gordon’s whose were not mentioned, but I want to throw her out there because of how relevant she is), but I think that Arnold-de Simine’s commentary has broadened my analytical network. She has encouraged me to keep reading and to engage more closely with the intention of a medium.
I really think all of the pieces in this journal are worth reading, but I wanted to point out a special one that I couldn’t cover in this blog post.
You might want to check out Andermann’s “Returning to the Site of Horror: On the Reclaiming of Clandestine Concentration Camps in Argentina.” He asks similar questions about curating memories in his examination of the Escuela de Mechanica de la Armada (ESMA). The ESMA is known as one of the largest concentration camps used to torture, maim, and murder the Desaparecidos in Argentina. It was given to human rights organizations by the government in Buenos Aires and sectioned off for different purposes. Andermann highlights the debates around its use and offers insights on the limits of secondary witnessing, neoliberalism, globalized memory-making, and issues of temporality.
- Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 29, Issue 1, January 2012
- “Introduction: Memory, Community and the New Museum” by Jans Andermann and Silke Arnold-de Simine
- “Memory Museum: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” by Silke Arnold-de Simine
- “Returning to the Site of Horror: On the Reclaiming of Clandestine Concentration Camps in Argentina” by Jans Andermann
- Berlin Holocaust Museum, Holocaust Tower
- Berlin Holocaust Museum, The Void
- Austerlitz Book Cover
- Escuela de Mechanica de la Armada (or, The Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy
- Art on the Gates of the ESMA