Please enable Java in your browser's "Options" (or "Preferance") menu to view this page Concordia's Thursday Report____________October 22, 1998

PhD candidate compares how museums present the Holocaust

Memory, history and national perspective

by Sylvain Comeau

Do historical museums present a point of view? Do museum patrons walk away with an objective overview of history, or do they get a viewpoint tainted by the political concerns of today?

That is the question that PhD history student Nicolas Gauvin is asking in his research. For his doctoral dissertation, to be completed in the year 2000, Gauvin is comparing four different Holocaust memorials: the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Auschwitz National Museum in Poland, and Yad Vashem, a memorial in Jerusalem.

"I am interested in how the Holocaust is presented, and how national ideologies are reflected in these memorials. There is no one history of the Holocaust; there are many histories, which are shown in the different ways that memory is reconstructed."

He found that such museums reflect national identity. "For example, in the memorial in Washington, the United States represents itself as a nation of liberators, and a welcoming land; that's because it is a national memorial. In Poland, the victims are portrayed as Polish first and Jewish second, although they were not killed because they were Polish."

Gauvin also detected the aura of political correctness in the debates that raged over which ethnic groups should be represented in the Washington memorial.

"During the design phase, there were many struggles over whether or not to include different groups persecuted by the Nazis. There were many people involved in the design, and they had to come to a consensus. There were several pressure groups who had to have their say, including Polish groups, gay groups and Jehovah's Witnesses."

In response, the memorial developed a kind of hierarchy of victims.

"The Jewish perspective won out; the other victims are represented, but they are a small part of the exhibition. They do not appear chronologically, for example; the mentally ill were the Nazi's first victims, but they are presented last."

Gauvin's doctoral work, which he is doing under the supervision of History Professor Frank Chalk, is a follow-up to his Master's thesis, in which he compared the Montreal and Washington memorial museums.

"I found that the two institutions are very different," Gauvin said. "The Montreal memorial is a communal museum, built by the local Jewish community, while the Washington memorial is a national museum.

"The Montreal memorial is critical of the Canadian government for refusing to allow Jewish immigrants (from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s). That kind of criticism was possible because there was no pressure from the government concerning the content of the memorial."

Another difference is in the lessons that each tries to impart about the Holocaust and World
War Two.

"The Montreal memorial is more concerned with the living culture of European Jewry that disappeared, and how it resurfaced and survived in Montreal. The Washington memorial is concerned with trying to make people aware of issues of tolerance."

Gauvin emphasizes that he is not making value judgments as to which memorial is better or worse. "I'm not going to say what I think is the best history of the Holocaust. The idea is to compare museums that have the same basic goal, but are very different because they are in different locations. The Jewish people in the United States, for example, do not live the same life as Jews in Israel, Montreal or Poland."

Gauvin [history student]

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.