Holocaust Memories: Visuality and the Sacred in Museums and Exhibits

Hansen-Glucklich, Jennifer, Department of Germanic Languages and Literature, University of Virginia
Voris, Renate, Department of Germanic Languages and Literature, University of Virginia

Holocaust museums and exhibits, like other memorial institutions, express national cultures of remembrance. The Holocaust, however, is widely perceived as a unique historic event and therefore poses unusual challenges and raises aesthetic and ethical questions about how to visually represent extraordinary trauma and rupture. The Holocaust demonstrates that there is no way to fully understand national cultures of remembrance without taking into account the technical difficulties of representation. Understanding demands both a broad and comparative—synchronic—approach as well as a sharply focused and interdisciplinary approach to minutiae.

This dissertation focuses on three museums: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Questions underlying this project include: Why do these museums engage visually with the Holocaust in such radically different ways? How do the museums employ mimesis, metonymy, allusion, and abstraction? What do these choices reveal about different cultural attitudes towards Holocaust memory? How do certain aesthetic techniques, such as interruption and disfiguration, function in the unfolding of each museum’s Holocaust narrative?

The five-chapter dissertation is organized as follows: the first chapter, entitled “Architectures of Absence, Redemption, and Experience,” is a close reading of the three museums’ architecture and their evocation of culturally determined concepts of the sacred. The second chapter, “Topographies of Memory: Museums in their Urban Contexts,” explores how the architects relate to their museums’ urban contexts and how their buildings resonate with the cities that house them. The third chapter, “Symbols, Icons, Artifacts, and Traces,” analyzes exhibits and objects within the museums with an emphasis on representational objects and icons such as photographs and symbols as well as on non-representational objects like artifacts and traces. The fourth chapter, “Displaying and Framing Objects,” explores how museum exhibits make meaning through techniques of display and framing, and analyzes in particular aesthetic strategies such as fragmentation, disfiguration, dismemberment, and interruption. The fifth chapter, entitled “Rituals of Movement, Rites of Passage, and Pilgrimage,” looks at rituals of movement within the museums and considers in what sense Holocaust museum-visiting may be considered a form of pilgrimage.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: