Silke Anderson-de Simine on the New Museum

 

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
  • (counter)monumentality
  • 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.

Bonus:

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.

 

Works Cited:

  • 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

Images:

-Ari

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media

And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.

Wiesel, Elie. Night (Night Trilogy), Preface

Holocaust Shoe Piles as Oppressive Media 

Images of shoe piles in concentration camps have become, in some contexts, a symbol of Holocaust remembrance. Alongside burning candles, calls to “never forget,” and the rattling sounds of cattle cars, shoes have a stronghold in Holocaust memorializing. As representations of the unnamed dead, empty shoes have had multivalent and historically situated meanings; In the present day, the Washington D.C. and Auschwitz Holocaust memorial sites reenact the concentration camp shoe piles in order to evoke an unintelligible sense of loss.

In the camps, the shoe piles had multiple meanings as well. For Nazis, the shoe piles acted as a visual representation of the success of their final solution. Every pile and overstocked warehouse represented a death toll; each pair of shoes represented a captured or murdered body. Left on display the in camps, shoe piles disempowered and threatened those imprisoned within. People in the camp saw overwhelming, ever-growing piles of shoes that emphasized their mortality. Tall enough for large swaths of prisoners to see, the overbearing piles of shoes spread the threatening message through the camp. Jews, Romani, disabled people, homosexuals and others were made aware of their inferiority and inhumanity in the eyes of the Nazi regime.

Aufräumungskommando Spiritual, Emotional, and Economic Labor

As representations of the dead, Holocaust shoe piles have threatened and emboldened those who encounter them. Marshall McLuhan describes clothing as “an extension of our skin [which] helps to store and channel energy” (McLuhan 119). Piles of shoes confiscated from the captured and the dead carried, and still carry with them, the essence of a body that is no longer there. Ambiguous souls occupy the shoes that were collected, sorted and displayed by camp prisoners. The above image, “Aufräumungskommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau Sort Through Shoes Confiscated from Hungarian Jews” demonstrates the emotional, spiritual and energetic work that Nazis subjected camp prisoners to (Note: this image was taken from the “Auschwitz Album” which included within it, among other things, images of the Aufräumungskommando of Auschwitz, a group of primarily Jewish order commandos).

The fresh shoe pile is taller than the Aufräumungskommando sorting through it and too long to fit entirely into the image. As it towers over them, the shoe pile contains within it the heavy story of Hungarian Jews who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But also, the Aufräumungskommando had to touch each pair and sort them into piles based on their monetary value. The bodies that would be gassed, burned, and overworked to support the Third Reich would continue to possess economic value for the regime. When prisoners’ bodies were gone, their shoes would be traded and sold in complex sales networks. Eventually, the shoes would be removed so far away from the camps that the aura of the person who wore them would disappear. As the Aufräumungskommando worked, they were forced to separate the essence from the shoe, the object from the person. And as the Nazi’s intended, the bodies would be forgotten.

Conclusion

Piles. Images from the Holocaust consist of piles: piles of glasses, piles of suitcases, piles of hairbrushes, of teeth with gold fillings, of jewelry, of bodies, of ashes…of shoes. All of the piles reflect the absence of bodies. While each of these collections holds deep meaning, piles of shoes have a weighty aura of the people who wore them. The breadth of genocidal rage and the rise of Nazi power can be sensed in those piles. But the meaning has also been flipped by descendants who have transformed them from architectures of power to metaphorical gravesites. Regardless of their application, the piles of shoes from concentration camps contain a sense of the dead and spread the affective horror of the Holocaust.

-Ari Weinberg

 

Works Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The MIT Press, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 1972.

The above shoe pile images were all taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website: