Talking About The Tough Stuff: Part 2

The Holocaust is not an easy subject to discuss. So many different emotions can be felt learning its history: sorrow, anger, grief, and confusion to name a few. So when confronted with conveying such difficult history, how are museums to handle it? What I have learned in the course of this seminar is that each museum is a little different in its approach. Some museums are more gentle in trying to explain it [specific history] while others give you all the information in an immersive experience. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum takes on an interesting stance, as discussed in our round table discussion with professionals of the museum, “we don’t put people into others’ shoes.”

Their reasoning is simple- they don’t want to compare pain of one or another. We want to learn from history and think ahead.

We took a tour of the temporary exhibition, Some Were Neighbors, which looks at how average everyday people contributed to the Holocaust. This exhibit demonstrated the museum’s stance of not putting you into any one person/group’s shoes. The exhibit looked beyond one side versus another, but the victim, perpetrator, and the bystander. You are given stories of how people’s decisions either hurt or aided the Jewish people. Although you are not viewing any one story, but many, you still feel a great sense of loss and sadness.

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This got me thinking though. By placing someone in “their shoes” are we being less reverent of the experience the person was witness to? Is immersion or certain sensory stimulants irreverent? I guess at this moment I don’t have a solid yes or no answer, but a simple “it depends” (which I know, is not the best answer). In some situations I can see it working, but in others, like the Holocaust museum, I can’t. I think each museum has to weigh how they want visitors to feel and how they want the history to be told. I think distance of time from the history being discussed is also important. There are still survivors of the Holocaust living, but we cannot say the same about those who lived at Mount Vernon.

 

So when we talk about the tough stuff at our museums, my best take away is this: consider the passage of time and what you want your audience to learn- then build from there.

 

Talking About The Tough Stuff

How does one discuss a topic that history seemingly forgot to mention in our text books? Today on our visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, we learned a great deal about the slaves that George and Martha had. I had never considered Washington having slaves, nor do I ever remember learning about Washington having slaves in history class growing up. Yet, it makes sense given the world he lived in.

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So when you have guests come to your museum and they are surprised by its content- how do you handle it? How do you even begin to discuss it? As one interpreter told us so eloquently- with “truth, dignity, and grace.”

Mount Vernon’s exhibit, “Lives Bound Together,” attempts to create the scene of what it may have been like for slaves living on the ground of Mount Vernon under Washington. The exhibition is wonderful and rather in-depth. The interpreters on the ground really try to give you a sense of the opinions and views of the people that would have worked and lived during the time of Washington (and some with him).

Thinking back to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I ponder the slavery exhibition. Again, not an easy topic to discuss for many. Yet, the exhibition was so powerful and so immersive, but done with such grace. I felt the history being discussed and walked away with an immense gain of knowledge.

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I realize history is not always pleasant to discuss- there have been incredibly tragic moments. Yet, as a museum, we have a responsibility to discuss history, no matter how unpleasant or how it may make one person appear (even if history has taught us a different view). We must use these lessons of history as teachable moment to hopefully avoid future occurrences. Wednesday we are going to the Holocaust museum and I am very interested to see how this story is portrayed through their exhibitions.