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The Trauma of Things

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2013 the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle probed the unsettling experience of visiting Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum revolves around traumatic things, images, and narratives that visitors vicariously contemplate across time and in the face of the inexpressible irrationality of hatred.  The museum provides some concrete mechanisms like “privacy walls” to avoid some of the most unsettling material and visual dimensions of the museum’s narrative; nevertheless, Ringle argued that the museum perhaps collapsed that distance most effectively when visitors “have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine.”  The Tower of Faces, for instance, is a massive three-story installation of 1,032 images of the residents of Eishyshok, a community in contemporary Lithuania where the Nazis massacred nearly the entire town in 1941.  Ringle argues that the pre-war family photographs are among the museum’s objects, images, and stories that force visitors to confront their “limit” by displaying prosaic humanity while acknowledging how these lives tragically ended.

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Cutlery recovered from a holocaust site are typical of the prosaic things that populate much of the Holocaust Museum.

The everyday things populating the archaeological record secure much of their power from their familiarity—personal trinkets like eyeglasses and jewelry, food, and bodily remains themselves narrate humanizing stories, but those sympathetic and even uplifting human experiences are simultaneously complicated by sober realities.  Scholars often champion narratives that aspire to define the concrete realities of human adversity if not despair, often with an ambition to examine the lingering effects of historical trauma.  Archaeology in particular has gradually shifted its focus from material description toward “dark” histories of enslavement, racism, warfare, sexism, and violence that perhaps strike some observers as a rather bleak picture of everyday life across time and into the present.  Human tragedies and adversities materialized in things often spark emotional responses that archaeologists aim to channel into reflective discussion.  This may come as a surprise to observers who fantasize archaeology as a dispassionate empirical description of the distant past that has no substantive connection to contemporary life, and some people inevitably will find history’s trail of horrors profoundly disconcerting if not an ideological distortion of a more-or-less placid human experience. Read the rest of this entry