Arguably the most powerful display in the NMAI is a photograph of the Native artist James Luna’s 1987 installation “The Artifact Piece,” in which the artist--dressed only in a loin cloth--lay motionless in a glass museum display case amid an exhibit on Native cultures in a San Diego anthropology museum. Labels explained various scars on his body, and other cases displayed his personal effects and documents. One can imagine the discomfort felt by museum-goers, who expected artifacts pertaining to “dead” Native cultures but were instead confronted with their own objectification of a living people, a member of which was now staring back at them through the museum glass. Luna’s point, as well as that of the NMAI, which chose to display his work, is clear.
Unwittingly, he was also passing a strong message to Jews. Whereas American Indians had always been placed in museums against their will by others as part of their political and (what Foucault might have called) “epistemic” subjugation, Jews have enthusiastically built museums and placed themselves in them (see sidebar). No one did it to them; on the contrary, Jews have been responsible for their own auto-objectification, and have, as the new Yad Vashem exhibit evinces, taken pride in their ability to turn themselves and their histories into "universal messages," artifacts, and lessons.
Jews’ penchant for museum building is a manifestation of a pathology two
centuries in the making: the assimilation of Western taxonomies, and all
the hierarchies they denote, at the expense of Jewish identity and Jewish perceptions of themselves and the world around them. It is the same pathology that drove the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the mid-19th-century German-Jewish initiated movement responsible for modern Jewish studies. Indeed, it is the same pathology that fuels Jewish studies today and gives it the distinction of being the most-over-represented discipline in the American university. So few Jews; so many Jewish studies courses.
Jewish museums, like Jewish studies courses, vary greatly in quality, and the newest ones resemble the NMAI in their interest in celebrating contemporary Jewish life. However, what remains true is the essential fact of any ethnographic museum, even one as self-conscious as the NMAI: the objectification of the subject, an act expressing an implied distance and hierarchical relation (often masked by nostalgia) separating the museum-goer from the object of the museum display. Perhaps for the non-Jews who visit such museums, the objectification is a small price to pay for learning all this information about Jews and Judaism. But, let's be honest, what Jewish museum is really made for non-Jews? Even the Holocaust museums and memorials, which claim to offer messages to all humanity and make great efforts to attract non-Jewish visitors with school trips and the like, are built by Jews for Jews. It's as if Jews already perceive a distance between themselves and, well, themselves, and they need to see themselves in a display case in order to know who they are. One is reminded of Sartre’s Estelle, who, upon the realization that there are no mirrors in hell, complains that when she can’t see herself she begins to wonder if she “really and truly exist[s]. . . . I pat myself just to make sure,” she says, “but it doesn’t help much.”
Inside the new Yad Vashem
by Esther Nussbaum
Yad Vashem’s state-of-the-art Holocaust History Museum opened to much
fanfare on March 15th. More than any other Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem
connects the devastation of the tragedy to the rebirth of Israel,
and reflects Israel's desire to cast the event as something other
than Jewish victimization. (Israel calls its day of Holocaust
remembrance, which falls this month, Yom HaShoah v’Hagvurah,
emphasizing the acts of resistance.)
Yad VaShem opened its first historical exhibit in 1973. Since then,
it has had millions of visitors, but has been criticized for
relying mostly on black and white photographs taken by the
Nazi perpetrators. This was problematic technically, especially after the much higher-tech
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington opened in 1993, as well as philosophically, as it seemed
to allow the Nazis to tell the Jewish story.
In keeping with the trend of allowing groups
to tell their own tales (see main story), Yad Vashem began planning this
new museum with the intention of utilizing the personal stories of those
who survived, as well as those who perished, and began to search
for artifacts and personal letters, diaries, and documents.
The resulting objects range from a postcard thrown from a
train on its way to a concentration camp to a child's ragged doll.
The work of Moshe Safdie, internationally recognized Israeli architect,
the museum building is replete with symbolism. The main
thoroughfare is a triangular hall with vaulting ceiling,
off of which are the nine galleries (“chapters”) that document the history of the Nazi rise to power, the innumerable incidents of humiliation of Jews (many of which were captured on film), paintings by artists such as Felix Nussbaum and Charlotte Salomon, and continuously playing videos of survivors telling their stories or archival footage from the camps. Because of this organization (or deliberate lack thereof), the thoroughfare must be traversed several times; it, and the constant storytelling, creates a subjectivity and nonlinearity akin to what Michael Shurkin describes at the new National Museum of the American Indian.
Critics may note that the Yad Vashem museum makes the Jewish catastrophe almost the exclusive focus: universal lessons may be derived, but the Holocaust is presented a particularistic experience. From the depressing first images that greet the visitor in a continuously playing video by media artist Michal Rovner to the dramatic, conical Hall of Names (where 600 photographs with descriptions are mounted in opposition to a pit-like area containing cuts in the stone symbolizing those whose names are not known), we are conscious of the Holocaust as Jewish tragedy. One exits as though from a tunnel -with the relief felt when waking from a nightmare - to breathe the Jerusalem air.
Clearly, in Yad Vashem's version of the Holocaust narrative, the story has an ending, and that ending
is Israel. The mission of Yad Vashem to be, in the words
of Isaiah, “a memorial and a name …an everlasting name”
has been not only realized, but, it would seem, internalized.