What belongs

Mary Beard

  • On the Museum’s Ruins by Douglas Crimp
    MIT, 348 pp, £24.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 262 03209 0

There are more than ninety Holocaust Museums in the United States. Thousands of Americans, it seems, are forsaking their traditional Sunday-afternoon session of art-appreciation or dinosaur-gazing, in favour of an hour or two in front of some of the most horrifying images of the 20th century: naked corpses, emaciated survivors, gas chambers. Film footage, of murder, death and dying, that would cause an outcry if shown in the local cinema (let alone on prime-time television) has become ‘family viewing’ in the safety of the museum. The official publicity for all this, of course, is unwaveringly high-minded. It talks piously of commemoration and education: the modern museum should encourage us not only to wonder at the glorious achievements of the past, but also to reflect on, and learn from, its ‘mistakes’. Who could fail to be moved by these displays? Who could fail to welcome a new role for the museum as stirrer of the nation’s conscience?

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