Holocaust Museums at a Crossroads: Ethical Debates and Moral Obligations

Sievers, Leah Angell, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Biemann, Asher, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

My dissertation, “Holocaust Museums at a Crossroads: Ethical Debates and Moral Obligations,” arises out of more than fifteen years of work experience in and study of Jewish and Holocaust museums and Jewish culture, traditions, literature, texts, philosophy, and ethics. The primary goal of my research is to argue that Holocaust museums are at a crossroads as they face the demise of the survivor population, the fact of ongoing genocide and mass atrocities, and the persistence of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination around the world. In this interest, the dissertation is not just about empirical evidence and curatorial decisions but also about analyzing museum practices through the lens of post-Holocaust Jewish moral thought.
This project is a normative one, and it articulates an ethical and philosophical framework against which museums’ curatorial and philosophical choices can be examined. It fits into an unoccupied niche in the field of literature on the Holocaust and Holocaust museums by documenting and analyzing in extensive detail the way that Holocaust museums are filtering and/or prompting the key questions being faced in Holocaust institutions and by the Jewish community today. It examines three major issues: how museums address the subject of modern genocide, how they incorporate survivor testimony, and how—or whether—they present the fact of ongoing anti-Semitism. This work adds layers of specificity and focus to the dialogue on the relation of the Holocaust to other genocides and to an ethical understanding of Holocaust representation.
Methodologically, the project relies upon three specific approaches to assist me in answering questions such as the ones above. First, I employ empirical analysis as it has been developed in the field of cultural anthropology and engage in close examinations of three major Holocaust museums—the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center—through on-site visits, interviews with senior staff, a study of web materials, and close analysis of museum documents such as minutes from meetings and mission statements. The museums and their relevant documents function as primary source materials in my research.
The second approach is historical analysis, and the literature of the field is used as secondary source material that sheds light on the decisions made in the museums and on the history of their development. Finally, there is a philosophical analysis of the empirical and historical data and the patterns documented, employing various philosophical and ethical approaches to formulate an assessment of the future of Holocaust museums in the United States. Philosophical analysis functions here as both an interpretive tool and as a means by which to reflect on specific ethical questions and on the future direction of Holocaust museums. Through the use of these approaches, this dissertation responds to the significance of the issues raised here to the future of Holocaust museums.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Holocaust, museum, ethics, Jewish, genocide, anti-Semitism
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