Sunday, February 20, 2011

Virtual Auschwitz

In yesterday's New York Times, an article on how "Auschwitz Shifts From Memorializing to Teaching" notes that the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which is slated for a major renovation and overhaul of its exhibits, will avoid incorporating digital technologies in its galleries.

There will be few bells and whistles, Mr. Cywinski insisted, few if any videos or touch-screens in the main galleries, which would be impractical for masses of people.

Unlike the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is known for its interactive passport experience and banks of multimedia portals, curators feel strongly that the mute testimony of piles of hair, luggage, and shoes needed to continue to have a central place in what many describe as a "shrine." Apparently the abstraction of online installations like the Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands in which Anne Frank is reduced to a mere flickering pixel on the display seems inappropriate to the caretakers of the heavily touristed site in Oświęcim, Poland where visitors come in pilgrimage.

Reading the story I think of the words of my former UC Irvine colleague Ruth Klüger, who was so critical of the "museum culture" that surrounds the genocide of the Jews. For Kluger, as a survivor, it was impossible to imagine that anything be learned from the Holocaust; it defied any pedagogical logic that she could see.

My own grandparents spent their honeymoon in the Weimar Republic. In seeing the sites of what was then still cosmopolitan Berlin, they elbowed their way through a crowd to see Hitler. In retrospect, their cultural tourism seems in obvious bad taste. But thinking about that particular historical moment of peeking at the bogeyman of totalitarianism and the racial state, I think about all the digital Hitlers that we peer at on the Internet, whether the Führer is walking on sunshine with parading admirers or complaining about consumer electronics in one of the thousands of videos in the Downfall meme.

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