By: Mark Mulder, Exhibitions Curator –
Recently, I have been paying attention to a growing national fascination with true crime documentaries, shows, and podcasts. It has become so popular that Saturday Night Live has taken on our nation’s fascination with true crime. The part of this trend that caught my attention is that many of these media pieces focus on the perpetrators of the crimes. There are deep explorations into the history of the person, their motivation, and the cultural circumstances surrounding the crimes they committed. This fascination appears to have a correlation with how our media outlets report on crime. While the victims of crimes are not completely ignored, much more attention is given to the perpetrators. For example, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Rolling Stone cover, NPR’s database of Capital Insurrection participants that focuses on “the arrested and their stories,” and the focus on the upbringing and “bad day” of the Atlanta shooter. It appears that in this day and age, the perpetrator is simply more “interesting,” and that raises some complicated issues for the Exhibitions Curator at a Holocaust museum.
One of the things I consider when creating, curating, or updating an exhibit is how to avoid creating a Nazi exhibition. There is plenty of material culture when it comes to the Holocaust, but much of it comes from the Nazis. It is not difficult to find Nazi artifacts and memorabilia in private collections, antique stores, flea markets, etc. It is much rarer to find artifacts that relate to the victims or targets of the Holocaust. There are, of course, a number of reasons for this, but the very abridged version is that the goal of genocide is to destroy a group of people, and physical culture is part of that aim. We could fill a wall of our museum with Nazi banners, and cases with pieces of Nazi uniforms. We could surround our visitors with Nazi propaganda. And to be sure, that could be interesting on the surface. But what purpose would that serve? It might constitute remembering the Holocaust, but how would that engage, educate, and empower, as our mission states? For me, much like the news and media described above, it focuses on the wrong people.
So what is a curator to do?
In my experience, as much as it is possible and makes sense, it’s about focusing on the victims and targets of Nazi brutality. It’s the same idea behind the “Say Their Names” movement. Sometimes a topic will require a focus on the perpetrators, and we obviously aren’t going to leave them out of the narrative. It would be irresponsible to talk about Nazi propaganda and not discuss Joseph Goebbels. But whenever possible, I believe it is important to utilize the stories and perspectives of victims and survivors of Nazi Germany as the core of the narrative.
So we tell the stories that we know, and as much as possible we focus on personal stories. A single object can be used to tell a life story, or illustrate the injustice of Nazi oppression. I believe that the phrase “never forget” means more than just never forget Auschwitz. It also means never forget the lives that were lived before, and the lives that were lived after. When we discuss victims only as victims, whether we are talking about the Holocaust or a more recent tragedy, we reduce those people to their moment of greatest suffering. And by digging deep into the lives and backgrounds of the perpetrators, we elevate their story above others. It is my aim that the more you interact with the HMC, whether it be by visiting our museum, following our social media, or utilizing our online content, you will learn more and more about the people who lived before, during, and after the Holocaust.