Archive for September, 2010

The New England Holocaust Memorial

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

This weekend I visited the New England Holocaust memorial (NEHM) in Government Center. It was not my first time there, but after reading this week’s readings I was able to look at it with new eyes. In my mind, it is an impeccable memorial- 6 hollow glass towers, inscribed with 6 million numbers.

Martia Sturken talked about the memorial as a “screen” for the public. The New England Holocaust Memorial sent a clear message as a screen. It is made of glass, completely transparent. The transparency of the memorial implies that there is nothing to hide, and the 6 towers stand quite tall and loom over the viewers, imposing the sense of scale necessary to such a tragedy.  However, the memorial is also contextualized, because as large as it seems, it is housed in the shadow of tall buildings all around it, giving the viewer a sense of perspective as if to say this is but one of many moments in our history.

What I found interesting was how the nature of the situation created a liminal memorial. Sturken discusses the differences between monuments and memorials, noting that generally speaking, memorials commemorate the dead while monuments underscore a unity of purpose and celebrate success. The NEHM, I think, while choosing to be called a memorial, definitely embodies some of the architectural traits of a monument, though a modest one. The tall towers are antithetical to Lin’s highly controversial and now archetypal low-lying memorial. However, a similar purpose is achieved. The memorial is to those who died, and by commemorating them (here as only numbers) the designers create a network of connections that radiates from the site and flourishes into a tangible legacy of those who died as well as those who survived.  In addition, the memorial insists that you enter it, to feel the heat coming out of the grates at the bases of the towers and to read the inscriptions of poetry or a story and of course the legions of numbers.

What I found most powerful perhaps was the use of numbers, which masterfully perverts the Nazi’s use of them to dehumanize their victims. The numbers act as signifiers, the same role as names, and here are effective because while the scope of the dead is in some cases well documented, in others whole villages will go unaccounted for. In embracing that number, each of the dead is reborn with a powerful sense of individuality and permanence etched into that glass with the finality appropriate of such a moment of our history. It thus avoids the problem of who to put in, who to leave out, and whose name has to be all the way at the top where no one can see it.

Overall, I found this memorial very moving, and I was not alone. It seemed like such a normal day until I arrived, but the NEHM was capable of stirring something deep inside of everyone there. You could see it in their eyes the way they stepped so cautiously, fearful to disrupt such hallowed ground. I almost forgot I was in the middle of Government Center, thousands of miles and an ocean away from where this happened, not to mention more than 60 years.  The memorial, true to it’s name, is something like the arousal of a deep memory- one that does not belong solely to the viewer or survivor but to all the living who care to see it. It offers a story, a history, and nothing more.  Stepping under those towers was like walking through a series of crucibles, each engraving a deep scar on your mind to remind you that it was there, as you are inside of it, and so the memory of the dead lives on inside of you. This process is central to the promise the many made after the holocaust- to never forget- and the NEHM succeeds in upholding that promise.

Contrasting Remembrances: The New England Holocaust Memorial

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

A visit to the New England Holocaust Memorial is an experience unlike I had expected. Walking through downtown Boston on a beautiful early fall afternoon, I had a pleasant jaunt in my step and was confronted from afar with six towers, separate but clearly together, enough to peak anyone’s interest, though I knew what I was looking for. I found the memorial both depressing and hopeful, it has an air of enclosed fear as well as light openness. Its very multiplicity and simplicity are essential strengths, allowing it to serve many purposes to different visitors while remaining respectful to those most personally involved.

Its location on a busy pedestrian street is both surprising and fitting, it is not set far apart from anything.  The only aspects separating it from the décor of historical Boston are the trees that line either side, their branches providing padding from the signage of the “Union Oyster House” and other Boston favorites. A part of the Freedom Trail, the memorial is an important site as well, though dedicated in 1995 it is a recent addition to the scene. People are walking all around, on this day there is a farmers market on the adjacent street as well as classic Irish tunes being played across the way. Children and families are walking about, there is definitely a cheerful air about the place. I am there on a Saturday and there are a good number of people walking through the towers, some more quickly than others, all with a serious air of piqued interest.

The simple style of the towers allows them to be representative of many things, the number six can be interpreted as the six million Jews murdered or the six main death camps where they were killed, or even a menorah of memorial candles. This number is so large, the towers do a good job representing them in a small space. One can enter the memorial from either side, (well there is I think one proper entrance, but I definitely went through it the other way and found it was adaptable) and each time are confronted with a reminder in Hebrew and English to “remember” etched into the granite stone. Stepping into the chamber evokes a haunting feel, the towers are lined with six million numbers, the same ones that were etched onto prisoners arms in the concentration camps. Each tower stands over a grate where smoke rises up with quotes on the two walls as well.

I found the height of the towers one of the more interesting aspects of the memorial. The towers stretch vertically on and on, (the website tells me 54 ft. high) but at the top they are open, and on this day, there is sunshine shining through. When I look around me at the numbers and read the heart wrenching quotes, I find that the tower is stark and creepy and is eerily reminiscent of a gas chamber. But looking upwards there is a finite end, leading to the infinite sky. There is light quite literally light at the end of the tunnel, and if I assign each number a person, it gives me the impression that these souls were set free.

Or maybe it’s just because of the beautiful day. I could imagine on a cold November evening this memorial would evoke quite a different response from me and from other visitors. Most of the people here today seem to be not very personally invested, many look to be from a country outside of the United States. If the trees weren’t quite so leafy and the sun not so enticing, the street a little quieter, I think it would be more difficult to find a spirit of hope in all of this. Yet accustomed to the feeling of horror and utter helplessness that usually accompanies visits to Holocaust museums, I am slightly relieved that this visit does not elicit quite the same response.

That is what is impressive about this memorial. It offers, in fact encourages, different responses from different people, probably oftentimes different responses from the same person. An atrocity like Holocaust is difficult to face. There is much that often “needs” to be done to pay tribute to its horrors, but this memorial manages to give voice to individuals and a collective whole without sacrificing the individual’s job of making sense of this how they will.

The granite stones on the outside of the towers tell of what happened during the Holocaust in few words, giving the most basic explanation to those who may not know as well as reminding all visitors that with prejudice and intolerance can come events such as this, horrible acts that no one would think themselves capable of. This memorial acts as both a reminder that it can happen and a remembrance and hope that such things will never occur again.

Nonviolent Display of Trauma

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

This afternoon, I invited my Turkish friend to accompany me to the Armenian Library and Museum of America. When I asked her if she wanted to come with me, she put no resistance; she was actually excited about going. As we entered the museum, the lady at the front desk asked us where we were from, and right away my friend avoided the question by changing the subject. She thought the lady would treat her wrongly by saying that she was born in Turkey. Taking a tanget on the conversation, Yesilhiilian, who works the front desk, gave us a short summary of Armenia. She explained to us that Muslim countries surround the country, and that there are still many, thousands of people that deny the Armenian genocide.
The major part of the museum addresses the cultural components of the Armenian society. It has multiple architectural models, made out of wood, religious scripts, and paintings indicating its Christian affiliation. Moreover, there is a display of tiles, and a variety of carpets, textiles and handcrafts. As my Turkish friend walked through the museum, she would be amazed at the familiarity of the objects. Whenever she saw the rugs and vases, she told me how she has similar, almost identical objects in her house. I did not understand why she was so surprised. To me it was obvious that they would have similar things as they lived in the same geographical region. I came to the conclusion that because it was such a taboo topic in her country, they did not think about the cultural similarities between the two groups. I could be completely wrong, but maybe there is still an implicit us vs. them mentality responsible for awakening a feeling of surprise in my friend.
After the introductory area, you find a small corner dedicated to the genocide. There was an explanatory paragraph providing a timeline of the events leading and during the genocide. On display was a handwritten letter of a survivor, and next to it was a mold used to make chalk. Besides that corner, there was not much more present in that floor related to the genocide. However, there were several political paintings and propagandas portraying the main Armenian leaders, and heroes that survived the genocide. The exhibition on the first floor did not try to emphasize the gruesomeness of the genocide; its emphasis was mainly historical and cultural. I think the purpose of the museum is to show that Armenian culture is still living, even after undergoing inhumane treatment. Despite the intent to eradicate all Armenians from Turkish territory, Armenians conserve their identity, a selfhood they are willing to show to the rest of the world. None of the texts were violent; they did not present a vindictive attitude towards the Turkish nation. It is more an intent to honor those who died by exhibit that which makes them Armenian.
Someone mentioned in class that traumatic experiences result in the individual’s will to go back to normal. You do not long for something out of the ordinary; you desire what is normal and mundane. And this is what the museum did: they put on display handcrafts, rugs, ceramics, and mannequins dressed in traditional costumes. By stressing the habitual, Armenians send a strong message: they are still alive, they keep their past alive, and they will always remember.
Once we get to the second floor, we start walking through a spiral like structure that shows photographs during the time of the genocide. They expose the misery, and the harsh conditions endured by those expelled, and deported. As you keep walking, you arrive at a window displaying the clothes of an Armenian child. The absence of the child, the emptiness left is stronger than words. There was no need to put thousands of photographs displaying the genocide; the museum did not have to impact the visitors by showing gruesome photographs of the massive killings. The absence of the child more stronger that any text or picture in the museum. The idea of what could have been of the child permeates your thoughts. It could have been any child; it could have been your friend, your neighbour, your brother, or your son… Children symbolize purity, and innocence; so what is worse that being able to kill a child? How can humans commit such an atrocious thing?
In my opinion, the museum was successful in commemorating those who died in the genocide. The clothes, that rest on top of white sheets, almost alluding to a bed, are enough. The absence of the human being that used the clothes, the bible resting besides the garments and the white sheets address the sanctity of life, the innocence of children, the unfairness of war, the deviance from what is moral, and the heinous acts humanity can engage in.
At the end of the museum, you find Dr. Kevorkian’s paintings. Dr. Kevorkian, also knows as Dr. Death, lived in the US and advocated for the legalization of euthanasia. Without getting into much detail, Dr. Kevorkian’s paintings were the perfect closure for the exhibition. To the Armenian community, and to the world, this doctor symbolizes progress and hope. As a representative of the Armenian community, Dr. Kevorkian’s acquired fame is a reminder that Armenians are still here, more present than ever, and that no one can hold them back.

The Salem Witch Trial Monument: Space Commemorating Fear of the Other via Women

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Death is a debt to nature due.

I’ve paid the debt, and so must you.

“Wow, these people were a barrel of laughs.”  M, the friend who had been kind enough to drive me to Salem, rose from reading the tombstone’s fatalistic epitaph.  We were in the historic cemetery near to downtown.

“Well, you know the old joke about Puritanism.  It’s the –“

“Nagging fear someone, somewhere, is happy.  Har har.”  He dusted off his palms and grinned.  “Let’s go to Jaho’s and then we can go to your memorial.”


Memory of a Memorial

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

When I first saw that I had to engage with a memorial or site related to historical trauma, I started making a mental list of all the locations I could think of in the area related to the Holocaust, different war memorials and local sites that have been touched by tragedy. I walked around campus, settling on the Holocaust memorial next to the Berlin Chapel. It looked like other memorials I had seen, bronzed, tarnished, and all together a bit forgotten. There was a simple silence in the figure of the person on the top of the stones. On each side there were lists of the different concentration camps in Europe and above those, set on the top of the large stone tablets, were dozens of smaller stones and rocks, picked up by passers-by as signs of remembrance. In the Jewish tradition, it is customary to put stones on a grave as opposed to flowers because no matter the weather, no matter how much time had passed, and no matter what happened to the site of remembrance, the rock would stay there, unharmed. As I was exploring this memorial site, I kept replaying last week’s class in my head. As I was thinking about what it meant to memorialize trauma and remember tragedy in a formal, public setting, I harkened back to last winter break. Skokie, Illinois is a five-minute drive from my house in Evanston, Illinois. Skokie has the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors
Living today outside of Israel. Last year when I got back from winter break, a new museum was in the process of opening in Skokie. It was going to be a Holocaust Museum, the first in the Chicago land area, and one to marvel at. The day I got home from beak was the day it opened, with Bill and Hilary Clinton as the Key Note Speakers and a big to-do all over town.
About a month later, during my last week home my parents bought us some tickets and we went to the museum. All spectacle aside, I was rather impressed with the way the Museum handled the subject matter and display. It was organized in a way that both respected and engaged the viewer with the subject. They had the prototypical history exhibit, the names of families, the rail car we discussed in so much detail. This time, though, it wasn’t so much an intrusion as it was a marvel to behold. They managed to get it above the ground, almost suspended on a second level, where you had to either go up a ramp or a small set of stairs to enter and once you had done so, you were in complete darkness save for one candle in the middle of the floor, covered in glass. An interesting addition to the museum, which I hadn’t seen at any other holocaust memorial, or museum was the end of the exhibit. There was a room near the back of the building where artists from all over the country, photographers, painters, sketch artists, had been picked to display different pieces that fit with the theme of the space. Some of them had to do directly with the Holocaust, with representations of horror, or fear, or death and destruction; but some of them were amazingly light and ethereal, almost like a coming-to-terms with and an acceptance of the trauma the space was memorializing. It was definitely set apart from other spaces yet reminded me of hallowed ground that so many other areas had once tread. I think the function of a traumatic memorial space is just that, it is supposed to make you feel a sense of familiarity because of the event, everyone knows what happened and everyone knows how it feels to mourn, yet it has to have something different in order for it to take a permanent place in your memory. How else would new emotions, experiences, and perspectives on that tragedy be formed?

Reflections on 9/11, 9 years later

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

The memorial observances on September 11 focused more on the people who died than anything you hear about the attacks on any other day. Many cities held some sort of service, including right here in Boston. One of the most important aspects of these services was the names of the victims. By naming them all year after year, the memory of them as individuals will resonant for years to come. It is a way to personalize and personify the attacks. It is a way for us to begin to understand just what happened. We can start to wrap our minds around the vastness of the impact of the attacks by hearing and seeing the list of victims, by experiencing just how many people are on it.

I feel I was more touched by the remembrance of the event this year than I have been in past years. The way that this tragedy has become a commercial and nationalist venture had soured any interest I have had in it since just after it happened. Focus has not been on those who were killed but on how America’s pride was hurt and on who appears the most patriotic. By marginalized the victims in the attacks in lieu of our pride as a country, we almost negate any reason we should feel our pride was hurt. People have also made knick-knacks galore in the likeness of the two towers, ribbons for the victims and other related objects.

I have since turned a blind eye to the debates and arguments of the memorial plans (a monument to our power, patriotism and resilience, not necessarily to those who died) as well as the arguments for and against our so-called “War on Terror” (The name just gives me flashbacks to a previous period in our history – the War on Communism. When will they figure out that fighting something tangible is easier than fighting an idea?).

This year has also had another slew of backlash against the Muslim faith. With talks of Qur’an burning and protests against mosques, I am reminded of something my favorite undergrad professor said when lecturing about First Amendment Rights: in times of crisis, we are more willing to give up these rights in order to feel safe. While those whose rights are being removed are not those pushing for the removal, I can still see that people are forgetting why we are so upset about the attack to begin with. We live in a country where we have so many freedoms and so many opportunities to be and do what we want. We are fighting for the notion of freedom while demanding that some of our populations be limited in their share of the glorious American pie and it is nonsense.

On “Date”

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

As possibly the biggest city in the world, New York City has always been the pilgrim place of fashion, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and debatably, secularism. However, as depicted by the short film “Date,” there is always a sense of sacredness underneath the city’s secular appearance, especially after (perhaps because of?) the September 11th attack.

The first 1’30’’ of the film almost lured us to think that this is just a common date scene in the Big Apple (pompous woman with high heels and close-fitting suit, the white Tiffany bag, the flowers…etc), though the date “September 2001” that vaguely appears on the edge of the magazine carried by the actress hinted an element of seriousness and a different interpretation of this film.  Later, this sense of seriousness fully revealed itself and even evolved into sacredness at 1’30’’, when the actress and the actor arrived at a Sept. 11th memorial, which was their actual destination of this date.

The short film, it seems to me, successfully creates a metaphor of New York in times of seriousness. After September 11th, New York is no longer the same. It is no longer just the symbol of individualism, secularism and superficiality; yet it has to preserve its secular spirit in order to defend its honor. As the camera moves from the two actors’ faces to the September 11th victims’ photos on the wall, we are moving from a presumably private/individual-centered setting to a public one. The shift from the individual to the collective also conveys a profound implication of the sacredness of the collective—that it is closely connected to yet transcends the individual. At this moment, the individual dissolves into the collective,  but he/she doesn’t disappear; quite on the contrary, a bigger and elevated image of him/her emerged and is transformed into the face of the city.

The video “Date” we watched on yesterday’s class could be accessed through the following link Date. More postings and comments on this video are welcome on this blog.

9/11 and the Politics of, well, Politics

Monday, September 13th, 2010

This blog entry, just to get this out of the way early, is an exercise in seeing through some of the propaganda that 9/11 has been used to advance.  America’s extended flirtation with xenophobia is not a particularly noteworthy revelation.  What I find particularly disturbing, however, is how many seemingly “mainstream” politicians and talking heads have become wrapped up in this fiasco.


Social Class Distinction in the MFA

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

For my first field report I ventured to the Museum of Fine Arts, with a goal in mind. During my reading of Tony Bennett’s “The Exhibitionary Complex”, there were certain arguments that I found intriguing. The first was that the museum was a training ground and a divider, in which the lower classes were, instructed how to act when surrounded by those of a higher status, more specifically as Bennett points out handing out pamphlets on proper decorum such as changing out of work clothes. (Bennett 1994:136) This fear of the lower classes “rubbing shoulders” with the elite, had permeated the museums past even before the handing out of pamphlets; things such as, operating hours and submitting credentials before being allowed entrance to a museum were earlier ways to keep the museum free of the lower classes. (Bennett 1994:135) This reading caused me to pursue the question of whether museums still act as a training ground and if there still is division within museums for those of different social classes.

Much of my earliest and most obvious observations seem to support the fact that parents use the museum to, in some ways, teach their children some societal behaviors. For example, the level of noise in the museum was one of the very first things I noticed, even in some of the smaller rooms where there were more children it seemed very solemn. Anytime a child’s voice went above a whisper they were quickly scolded to “shush”. One very surprising behavior to me, was the way the parents instructed their children not to touch things. Perhaps, being a fine arts museum this makes sense, however, this applied to things such as interactive computer displays which were meant to be touched. This feels to me that parents were being overly watchful of their children’s behavior, which extended to the distance the parent allowed the child to wander by themselves. For the most part, no more than a few feet, even though the museum was not that busy and they had full line of sight.

My observation then moved to the division of the museum patrons by social class. My first idea was to look at the way people had dressed in the museum, especially since Bennett made a reference to “working clothes”. This however led to a dead end. Clothes ranged from a man in a full suit to shorts and a T-shirt. Instead of division of social class by clothes, it was more of an indicator of whether the person was part of a family group. Most of the patrons with children wore more casual clothing versus couples or those alone. However, I did find something that seemed to reflect social class separation. The museum has three different dining areas. The Courtyard Café, is located on the lowest level of the museum, the food here is the least expensive with plastic forks and knives, is self-serve, and self-seated. The Galleria is on the middle floor, there you are served by wait staff and eat and drink with glasses and silverware, the serve mostly salads and lighter foods and is in the middle price range. The most expensive is Bravo. It is located on the top floor and reservations are recommended. It is completely enclosed and seeming separate from the rest of the museum and overlooks the Galleria. The division of dining locations based on price seems a more subtle way of creating class division. Those who are fortunate enough to afford Bravo are seated at the top, overlooking the Galleria, and far above the Courtyard Café. The way the dining areas are set up brings me subtle reminders of Bennett’s discussion of the museum as a separator of classes, and in this separation there seems to be a remnant of the past division.

MFA-Wonder, Resonance, and a Whole Lot of Teaching

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

After a treacherous shuttle and subway ride, I finally made it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I planned out the most agreeable path to take on a foldable map and was on my way. My intention was to make it to the Avalon exhibition but was caught by the comparability between many of the museum’s permanent collections and the concepts of wonder, resonance and cabinets of curiosity from class. I barely had time to look around the Avalon exhibition.

The first and main room I performed my observations was marked “Oceanic.” Text on the wall indicated the artifacts in the room were grouped by geographic location from the island region in the South Pacific. As per the text, Oceanic includes: Hawaii, Guam, Easter Islands, New Zealand, New Guinea and Indonesia. Depending on the direction from which you enter the exhibition, it is very difficult to take notice of the wall text. In fact, I nearly just walked on through. As I watched others do the same, take a few looks and perhaps even read where the piece was from, I considered why they did so. Was it that they too like me were more concerned about the new exhibition? Are they frequent MFA visitors and had already become very familiar with the Oceanic room?  I am not certain. However I do suspect that in order to prolong visitor’s time in the room, the curators fit the flashiest items in the center. I decided the centerpieces, both masks, served to produce an element of wonder in order to entice the visitor into looking more closely at the other objects and to trigger excitement for Oceanic culture. One of he masks, a Vanuatu (Ambryn Island) piece is described as, “Although this type of bold and colorful mask is common in some early European collections, little is known about the context in which it appeared…Used by members of man’s secret society, and women were forbidden to see it The description fixes the mask as something mysterious and of importance even though it’s known to be a common piece. What makes it extra exotic is the forbiddance of the female gaze upon it.  All artifacts were wither kept in individually glass encased boxes or mounted inside a built in wall chamber. Most of the pieces stood independent from each other. For example two clubs in one and an axe in another. The separation between object and viewer stands as a mark of the objects’ importance and mystique as an object from the past, as though it has a story to tell and something to teach. What reminded me most of cabinets of curiosity were not only the enclosures, but also the nature of the dissimilarity of the object’s shapes and purposes. Sailing chart, paddle, and shield from different locations in the oceanic region were paired together. The objects were part of larger ensembles that had been put together in order to exhibit an array of rituals that had ceased to exist. To teach?

The words, “Preserving history, making history” were written on a wall about the museum’s history. The idea that the museum as restoring what has been made and making history through restoration suggests that the viewer can be part of history. I feel as though the statement also comments on the museum as a reformer of the mind, to educate and to civilize populations. The “bookstore & shop” were filled with people of all ages, the majority or highest demographic was comprised of adults between the ages of 20 and 60. Most were flipping through books. A few older women were looking at jewelry and the children were in the toy section. The books were the main attraction, reminding me of resonance and the intellectual contemplation evoked by the exhibitions. Did people mark their favorites and then look up more information at the bookstore? I could not help to wonder if people were truly looking through the books or doing so out of a museum expectation that they should do so, like self-imprisonment? Putting themselves there, almost unconsciously forcing themselves to become more cultured and diverse. Is it the museum as an institution that evokes this behavior? Does seeing a bunch of artifacts make museum participants thrill enough to find a book that provides details a small 5line text beneath an artifact cannot? Or does seeing the people in the bookstore merely comment on who is visiting the museum?