Noticing Narratives: An Evaluation of Holocaust ‘Lessons’ Portrayed By American Museums

March 30, 2021   /  

Name: Rachel Ginsburg
Major: History
Minor: Chinese
Advisor: Dr. Joan Friedman

This study focuses on identifying and understanding the narratives displayed by American Holocaust museums. Specifically, this is a case study of the historical narratives portrayed by the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC), the United States Holocaust MemorialMuseum (USHMM), and the Museum of Tolerance (MOT). After I observe each of these museums, I apply a master criterion set to each institution and which then determines its quality. I contend that a quality Holocaust museum portrays the Nazi genocide in a way that emphasizes its distinctiveness from other genocides. In light of museum construction and American Holocaust museum scholarship, along with the application of my criteria, it is my determination that the HMC is the best Holocaust museum of the three because of its portrayal of concepts such as antisemitism, the Nazi regime, the relationship between the Holocaust and WWII, and the avoidance of asserting pluralistic lessons.

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Rachel will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

75 thoughts on “Noticing Narratives: An Evaluation of Holocaust ‘Lessons’ Portrayed By American Museums”

  1. Rachel, such fascinating research! Could you explain what “pluralistic Holocaust lessons” are, and why it might be important to note no museum avoided asserting them?

    1. Hi Marcel,

      Thanks for your question and comment!! By “pluralistic” I mean lessons that are applicable to all historical genocides and are not Holocaust-specific. It is important to note that none of the museums in my case study avoided asserting them because it demonstrates that said institutions are not just Holocaust museums as they labels themselves as. They assert other lessons such as improving humanity, how to avoid genocides entirely, and how to connect or equate the Holocaust with other historical events, and thus, take away the Holocaust’s distinctiveness.

      1. This is a really interesting question I was going to ask too. This is so cool to think about, and super important. Good job Rachel!!!

  2. Watching you go through the process of selecting your topic, doing the research, collecting your resources, establishing your thesis and developing your final work was amazing. The hours of dedication to getting it right and the expertise you now own on the subject have us just wowed. Well done young lady.

  3. Rachel, nice job with your project. I have a couple of questions for you. First, how did you develop the criterion that you used to judge the museums? Second, did you focus only on permanent collections or did you also look at exhibits that were temporary?

    1. Hi Megan,

      Thank you for your questions and comment! I developed my criterion after reading through various sources by experts on the subject, such as Michael Marrus and Tim Cole. I also shaped my criterion around the HMC’s exhibits after I visited it. I found that the six criterion (mentioned above) were the most important to my study because they truly demonstrate each museum’s purpose, or narrative. For this project, I looked at both permanent and temporary exhibits because I thought in combination they would provide me with the best understanding of what each museum was trying to communicate to its visitors.

  4. Rachel, I look forward to discussing your work in detail during orals (As you may know I am the second reader for the project). I am curious to hear about your selection process for these three museums—Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC), the United States Holocaust MemorialMuseum (USHMM), and the Museum of Tolerance (MOT). Were there others you considered?

    1. Hi Dr. J,

      I am excited for our conversation about my IS!

      Professor Friedman and I developed this project together during my time with her for Junior IS. I knew I wanted to do something with the Holocaust and with museums after taking your public history class. So, I brought these ideas to Professor Friedman and we thought about how to bring the two together. We chose these museums because a case study between the three has not been done before. We decided that the three museums offered an interesting contrast in terms of scale, public awareness, and purpose, but were on the same medium by being American. I considered using Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, however, as a memorial constructed by only Jews, it was too personal and would not serve the purpose that I needed it to.

      Thank you for your question!

  5. Your topic sounds really interesting. I am really excited to hear more about your research and findings!

  6. Rachel, I’m so impressed by your work and am so proud of you for pursuing this topic. Thank you for sharing your research and congrats on finIShing!!!

    1. Hi Em,

      Thank you so much for your support throughout this process! Congrats to US!!! We killed it!!!

  7. Congrats on finishing your IS, Rach! Such an interesting topic, and I know you worked hard on it. So proud!
    -Chels

    1. Hi Lil Chezzie!

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for being a great role model to me!! Hope you are well 🙂

  8. Rachel, this is such an important topic! What do you believe are reasons for museums not having certain criteria?

    1. Hi Liv,

      Thank you for your question!!

      I have found that museums do not meet certain criteria because they have different purposes, administrations, and different understandings of historical events. In this case, I found that the larger-scale museums, the USHMM and the MOT, were more focused on breaking down the Holocaust in a way that made it make sense to those with all levels of Holocaust education and portray more broad ideas about genocide. The smaller museum, the HMC, was created by Jews, and more focused on presenting the distinctiveness of the Holocaust and shaped its exhibits with the perception that visitors had a stronger understanding of the event.

  9. Hey Rachel! Congratulations and thank you for doing such important and necessary research. Do you think your findings are a uniquely American phenomena? Regardless, what is one improvement you feel that all museums can make to more accurate depict the Holocaust?

    1. Hi Miyauna,

      Thank you for your comment and questions!!

      Without applying this study to international Holocaust museums, I cannot fully answer your question. However, based on my speculation, I would say yes, this is primarily an American phenomenon because of the US’s need to memorialize events by painting itself in the best light. As for your other question, I believe American Holocaust museums would be more successful if they removed their “moving forward” exhibits.

  10. Congratulations, Rachel! Thank you for doing such a challenging but important project! I feel fortunate to have you in many of my classes at Wooster. I wish you the best in your future adventures!!

    1. Thank you, You Laoshi!!

      I was able to do this because of your kindness and continued support throughout my academic career. I have learned so much from you and am continually inspired by your drive and passion!

      Thank you for everything!

  11. Congrats Rach!! Thank you for showcasing such an important topic. I can really see your hard work and passion! What do you this was the hardest part of your thesis? Congrats again!

    1. Hi Marissa,

      Thank you for your question and comments!

      The hardest part of my thesis was reading through and analyzing the different historical arguments by experts in my topic. However, it was worth it because they gave me a better idea on how to properly evaluate the museums that I looked at for my IS.

  12. I am so proud of everything you’ve accomplished. What an important topic, you’ve done an incredible job! You will truly change the world with your passion and devotion.

  13. First off CONGRATS! So proud of you!

    What do you personally believe is the most important criteria for these museums to meet?

    1. Hi Ciara,

      Thank you for your comment and question!

      I would say that criterion nine, not asserting pluralistic Holocaust lessons, is the most important criterion for museums to meet. Meeting this criterion ensures that the Nazi genocide’s distinctiveness is maintained and not equated to other historical genocides. If Holocaust museums worked towards meeting this criterion, the event itself will remain in history for much longer. This criterion is also important against Holocaust denial advocates.

  14. How much of our current understanding/examples of antisemitism are influenced by the Holocaust? You mentioned it’s a very particular genocide, so to what degree and why is this a true reality and cultural consciousness shaping event, as opposed to something like the Armenian genocide (which Hitler himself referred to as a reason for why his plan wouldn’t be that big of a deal to most people)?

    1. Hello Mark,

      Thanks for your question! I would say that our current understandings/acts of antisemitism are significantly influenced by the Holocaust. I do not have any exact data to measure this, but a large portion of antisemitic acts and comments that take place today have some connection to the Holocaust. These include the recent spray-painting of swastikas on Jewish properties, the wearing of shirts that say things like, “6MWE (6 million was not enough)”/”Camp Auschwitz,” Tiktoks with jokes about gassings, or hate comments like, “Heil Hitler,” etc. I personally have experienced hate comments like this and the genocide took place roughly eighty years ago. So I would say that this event has and continues to reside in the American consciousness no matter one’s relation to it. I think the Holocaust maintains this residency because it involved so many actors from all over the world, its relationship with WWII, the immigration it catalyzed, and its general degree of mass destruction.

    1. Thank you, Addie!!

      I have always been interested in museums and the Holocaust, so combining the two seemed logical for my IS. My advisor and I chose three museums that had never been compared before, were easily accessible, and shared a common medium by being American. There is also a significant amount of scholarship on “The Americanization of the Holocaust” and so I knew it would be an interesting, important, and well-supported topic to explore.

  15. Congrats Rachel, this is a very meaningful take on an increasingly important topic!

  16. I am so happy you choose this, this could benefit other museums when covering the holocaust. How did you manage to go through the museums and not have a strong emotional reaction? Or did you? Great job being professional with the material.

    1. Hi Bestie,

      Thank you for your comments and question!! Visiting Holocaust museums is always hard, especially for a Jewish person, but I knew I had to act as a proper historian and remove my personal sentiments from my project. Honestly, I was very upset at times when visiting the museums, but was able to objectively write about my findings in my IS itself.

  17. Great work Rachel, I am very proud of you! Did you get the master criterion from an existing source or did you develop them yourself? How did you decide which ones to include?

    1. Hi Heidi!

      Thank you for your comment and questions! I developed the master list of criterion myself after careful consideration of different scholarship on the subject and my visit to the HMC. This way, I had frames of reference for what I should look for in each museum instead of going in blind and trying to make sense of the mass amount of info I saw/read.

  18. Such a cool project! I’m happy to see some scholarship on antisetism and it’s portrayal in America, especially with the rise of hate crimes in our country. Awareness is the first step in making change. Amazing work Rachel! I can’t wait to read it in detail.

    1. Hi Bill, Thank you so much for your kind and inspiring words!! Thank you for understanding the relevance and importance of this topic. I appreciate your interest and continued support of me and my project!!

  19. Great job Rachel so proud of you of finishing your IS it looks great! After observing the certain criteria you made to evaluate the museums were you disappointed in any of the museums and their maybe lack of information on certain areas? If so, what museums specifically and what did you wish your saw more of?

    1. Hi Steph!! Thank you so much for your nice comments and questions!! I would say that yes, I was disappointed in the USHMM and the MOT for the amount of pluralistic Holocaust lessons that they portrayed. These institutions receive the most amount of visitors among American Holocaust museums and therefore, the messages they send shape many peoples’ understanding of the event. So, if you base your understanding of the Nazi genocide on the information given by the MOT and USHMM you most likely believe that the Holocaust is not as distinct as other genocides. As this phenomenon continues, the Holocaust will increasingly become lost among other historical events.

  20. Congrats Rachel!! As a fellow student-athlete, are there any tips for how to balance school and practice, along with still having free time? Also, what are your plans for the future with your major and minor? Possibly working at a museum or something else?

    1. Thank you, Nick!! I would suggest writing down the dates of major assignments at the beginning of each semester and working on them a little bit each day shortly before they are due instead of cramming. Doing that has helped with my time management and saved me from doing poorly on bigger assignments. Make sure you notify your coaches and professors in advance if you are struggling or have something important coming up. Also, never be afraid to ask for help. Wooster is such a tight-knit community and everyone wants you to succeed!! As for me, I plan to begin law school in the fall. After getting my JD degree, I hope to become a partner in an arbitration firm.

      Thank you so much for your questions! Good luck with everything!

  21. Rachel! I am so so proud of you and your research. I am so thankful to have been apart of your Wooster journey from day one and I am so excited to see what you accomplish in the future!

    Your research was very telling that there is much work that needs to be done to accurately and fully detail the occurrences of the Holocaust without inserting uplifting/”moving forward” narratives that take away from the stories that need to be told.

    This was a great I.S. and I’m so proud of you! Congratulations, OR!

    1. Hi OR!!!

      Thank you so much for your kind words and interest in my topic!! It means so much to me that people care and understand the importance of the Holocaust.

      I am so proud of US and how we have grown over the last four years! We KILLED it!!! Congrats to you, I know you will do amazing things!!!

  22. Rachel,
    Congratulations!! We’re all so proud of you and your dedication to this project!
    In conducting your research, were there any findings that especially surprised you?

    1. Hi AL,

      Thank you for your kind words and question!! I was particularly shocked by the MOT’s inability to meet my criteria. Although the museum is not known specifically for the Holocaust, I thought it would provide a more complete and historically-accurate picture of the Nazi genocide for its visitors. I was also surprised that the MOT and USHMM did not go into more detail about the origins of antisemitism.

    1. Hi Mimi and Papa,

      Thank you for your continued support of me throughout this process (and always). I am so happy you were able to “stop by” and look at my research!

  23. Congrats! With my work professor Friedman I know that this a complex topic that can be seen as daunting to tread. Really great job!

    1. William,

      Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words!! It was a long and hard road but we made it!!

  24. I knew about your project from hearing you explain it at the beginning of the year but it is SO cool to see what methods you actually used to evaluate the museums. Such important research, proud of you Rach!

    1. Gail,

      Thank you so much for you support and appreciation of my topic!! I am proud of US!!! WE did it 🙂

  25. This is a fantastic project and an important contribution to the fields of museum and genocide studies. Thank you for taking on such a challenging topic. Evaluating museums is something that is critical to how most moments in history are remembered, and your research reminds us that we must always be aware of how personal and/or institutional bias can play a role in the portrayal of these historical moments. I know how important this research is to you, so thank you for sharing! Congratulations, Rachel!!

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thank you so much for your kind words and your interest in my topic! You are so right in that museums play such a critical role in how history is remembered and that we must be wary about the information that we are told. I am so happy and honored that this IS resonated with you! Wishing you the absolute best!

  26. Very interesting topic, Rachel! I’ve never been to a Holocaust museum in the U.S. before, but when I do, HMC will be the first one. Congrats!!

    1. Hi Sam,

      Thank you for your interest in my topic! I am so happy that my IS has raised your interest in visiting the HMC. It is a great and important experience to have! Congrats to you also on a well-done IS!

  27. Rachel, thanks for your contribution in the interpretation and depiction of genocide and the Holocaust experience in particular. It brought back memories of my visit to the US HMM, and what a deeply moving experience it was to walk through a museum trying to curate and storytell individual, collective, national, international, religious, and human narratives all at once. Your summary and research is thought provoking, thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Arvind,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments! I am so glad that my research resonates with you! Visiting the USHMM is a very important and interesting experience and it is great that you were able to have it. Thank you for understanding and recognizing the highlight of my IS-the narrative-and the critical role it has by shaping a visitors’ understanding of an event.

  28. Rachel, I am so proud of you for studying something that often gets overlooked in today’s society. Antisemitism continues to be a huge problem today and this research shows us the importance of the narratives museums portray. This is amazing work! Congrats!

    1. Hi Syd!!

      Thank you so much for your kind thoughts. I would not have been able to do this without your support. I am so glad that you find this topic important and relevant in today’s world. We need more people like you to fight against hate and learn from history.

      Love you!!

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