The University Record, December 21, 1998

Museum collections gain a sense of timelessness and eternal value, and help shape our memories

By Rebecca A. Doyle

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Museum of Art Dec. 8 for a panel presentation on 'Museum + Memory' featuring Edward Linenthal of the University of Wisconsin; architect Daniel Libeskind; and James Steward and Edward Dimendberg, with President Lee C. Bollinger as moderator.

What is the purpose of museums in the United States today? Do they exist as a place to store memories? Are they, in themselves, memorials? Do they revise and shape our collective memory of events?

President Lee C. Bollinger moderated a panel discussion titled "Museum + Memory" that addressed such questions earlier this month in conjunction with an earlier presentation by Daniel Libeskind, an architect noted for his work on museums and public cultural spaces.

Libeskind served on the panel with Edward Linenthal, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh; James Steward, director of the Museum of Art; and Edward Dimendberg, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literatures.

Bollinger said that the subject of museums and memory is important, interesting and current, and cited controversy about National Endowment for the Arts funding for museums based on the decency of their exhibitions as an example.

Linenthal cited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as an example of a museum designed not only to house exhibits but to represent the Holocaust and acknowledge its place in history. The museum's location, he says, honors the importance of the Holocaust by its proximity to the Washington Mall. But approval for its design and construction was not a smooth process.

Design of a museum that exists to memorialize a horrible event in the history of the world, Linenthal says, raised three key points that needed to be addressed in order for the building to reflect its true function and to be accepted by the public.

The first was a political question, he noted. "Why is this the first one?" was a question asked by African American, Native American and other groups, who wanted to know why this should be the first memorial museum near the Washington Mall when there were other catastrophes and traumas associated more closely with the United States and its people.

The second issue was the building design, which struck some people as "too gloomy," Linenthal said. Asked to design hope, architect James Freed replied, "I don't know how to design hope. We're talking about the Holocaust."

The third was the issue of contested space-who was to be remembered? Should the memorial be to all who died in World War II? Only to Jews? To those who helped hide Jews from the Nazi forces?

"This is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, so the imperative of remembering all the Holocaust victims was simply written in to the basic principles," Linenthal said. But discussion raged over the issue of whether the memorial should be only to Jews. "Jews died a different death," noted one Holocaust survivor. But in the end, Linenthal noted, the memorial had to include all who died in the Holocaust.

Libeskind, who had addressed a Rackham Auditorium audience the night before, is noted for his work on the Jewish Museum in Berlin, additions to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Holocaust Museum in San Francisco.

"Memory is not only related to the past," he told his audience, "it is always something also of the future.

"Museums are the generator and the recreator of the way one thinks of oneself, the way society really moves forward." We should not consider museums as simply repositories of fine arts, but something that defines what is important for the public.

Museums play a part not by confirming our own ideas of history, Libeskind said, but by providing a way for the public to feel a part of it and attuned to traces of history, "the possible fruition that can never really come to pass." Libeskind said that museums should not be a nostalgic memorial to the past but an artistic inspiration that engages and involves everyone.

Steward, who has been director of the Museum of Art since July, said that museums have power-the power to make new things old. Items that are placed with museums, and sometimes even created for museum display, are assumed to have the quality of timelessness and eternal value, he said. It is essential, he continued "to reclaim the act of looking at objects, to reinvent perception itself by reinventing the presentation of objects in museum space to prevent the erosion of culture."

Memory is subjective, he reminded the audience, and constantly changes with new knowledge. Each collection of objects that is intended to be representative of a subject reflects the interpretation of those who gathered them and may be interpreted by visitors in light of their own experiences and memories, he noted.

A collection in a museum is "a resocialization of objects that transforms those objects and, by extension, transforms our individual and collective sense of memory," Steward said. The objects collected by a museum he concluded, are not gone, "but their worlds are gone." It is the job of those in the museum field, he said to "be conscious of the way in which we give voice to more silent objects and the extent to which we respect inherited memories and create new ones."

Dimendberg presented an "alphabet of the work of Daniel Libeskind," an A-to-Z listing of his works, traits, visions and philosophy in architecture.

"Museum + Memory" was sponsored by the Arts of Citizenship Program, the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Office of the President.

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