Figures of Memory

The Rhetoric of Displacement at the United States Holocaust Memorial

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Michael Bernard-Donals
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , January
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At the inaugural event of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, Elie Wiesel turned to President Bill Clinton and exclaimed, “Mr. President. You must do something.” According to the new book Figures of Memory: The Rhetoric of Displacement at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by Michael Bernard-Donals, this plea illustrates the precarious balance between remembering and ethical action (155). One of the central themes of the book, and of the museum itself, is that remembering the Holocaust isn’t enough; it must lead to action.

Figures of Memory looks at the history and impact of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [USHMM] from two perspectives: the planning and design of the building and its interior space, and its impact on visitors. By focusing on the interaction between the museum space and objects and the observers, Bernard-Donals seeks to explain why the museum sometimes moves visitors to remember events that are only tangentially related to the museum’s permanent exhibition. Specifically, he looks at the evolution of the design of the museum, the intended effects of that design, and how they played out (4). He sees the process by which memory gets displaced and the visit gets disrupted as inevitable, but also attributes it to the museum designers’ understanding of the link between public memory, that is, the imparting of knowledge about the historical event, and ethics, that is, the need for action in the present. 

Figures of Memory uses documents from the USHMM archives, specifically records of committee meetings discussing how the museum should be designed and comments left by the museum’s visitors. The five chapters address the early deliberations about the Permanent Exhibition [PE], the debates through the 1980s and 1990s, the creation of the Committee on Conscience [CoC], how visitors engaged with the space of the museum, and how the tension between history and the present opens up space for ethical action.

At the heart of Figures of Memory are two questions. First, what is the central purpose of the USHMM and of Holocaust memorials and museums in general? Is it to create a historical narrative or to convey the event’s exceptional nature by engaging the visitors with the space and objects. Secondly, might visitors’ experience be controlled or contained by the way the space is designed? The sensation created by the space as it moves visitors through, the placement of the railway boxcar so that it is virtually impossible to avoid, and so forth, blur the distinction between public and individual memory. 

These underlying tensions were at play in lengthy discussions of what objects should be included in the museum and their relation to the events of the past. Do objects like the pile of shoes serve as a connection to the past or do they create an experience in the present? In trying to make the connection between the intentions of the museum’s designers and the impact on the visitors, Bernard-Donals argues that memory is “spawned by the relation among those objects” rather than their relation to history (71). In other words, the placement of objects, and their relationship to one another, disrupts the viewers from relating the objects to their past and their historical significance. This is where the argument gets tricky. Might the objects in question—a pile of shoes, suitcases, photographic images, the boxcar, and so on—be related to past events as well as to each other? In fact, making those connections seems to be part of how the viewers will deepen their understanding of history. 

In discussing the impact of the space of the PE on visitors, Bernard-Donals uses the term kairotic to describe the way visitors are moved from the past to the present, sometimes to events that bear little or no relation to the historical events of the Holocaust. The responses of 15 percent of visitors were not focused on the Holocaust at all, but on events such as 9/11, the African American experience, discrimination against LGBTQ people, and the “holocaust” of the unborn (149). Bernard-Donals seems to argue that the design of the museum and the placement of objects are at least in part responsible for the visitors’ displacement of the Holocaust. Turning to public programming, Figures of Memory highlights the tensions between the historical and the ethical aims of the USHMM. The museum’s public programs were designed to encourage engagement with events of the world in the name of the Holocaust and to encourage visitors to take an ethical stance. In creating the conditions for this ethical stance, the museum’s designers, according to Bernard-Donals, created the conditions that led visitors to be displaced or moved back and forth between the past and the present. 

Figures of Memory makes an important contribution to our understanding of the purpose of Holocaust memorials and museums and to the way that those who visit the USHMM are affected by their experience. Bernard-Donals is at his best when he focuses on the documents and archival materials, which reveal a great deal of new information about the process of creating the museum, the CoC, and the public programs, as well as on the impact on visitors. The attempt to link the decisions made by the committees regarding the space of the building and the objects to be included to viewers’ displacement of the Holocaust to other events is intriguing but not entirely convincing. As Bernard-Donals himself suggests, displacement is the inevitable outcome of the way memory works. Every museum visitor comes with preconceived notions and filters the information through his or her own experiences and ideas, and that seems to be the most likely explanation for the displacement that occurs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Rose is Adjunct Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island and part-time Instructor in Religion at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Bernard-Donals is Nancy Hoefs Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust, also published by SUNY Press, and Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice (coedited with Janice W. Fernheimer).


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