Memorial Museums and Material Witnesses: Framing Objects as Witnesses to Trauma

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Freier, Amy
Phenomenology , Trauma , Memory , Material Culture , Memorial Museums , Witnessing
In this thesis, I will examine how objects are given narrative voices by memorial museum curators, and how these narrative qualities facilitate ethical and critical relations between museumgoers and traumatic histories. My two main points of contention arise out of these questions: 1. What does it mean for an object to be a witness in the context of trauma? 2. What might the material dimensions of witnessing accomplish in regards to museumgoers understanding of and ability to respond to their memorial museum experience? Instead of being silent witnesses to the past, I propose that objects can become contact points of ethical engagement and understanding when it concerns traumatic events in history. The ability and necessity of seeing objects as more than mere things to be manipulated by language and curatorial framing is crucial in cases of trauma, as they can become portals that can help overcome the “constitutive failure of linguistic representation in the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, post-Vietnam era” (Leys, p. 267f). This thesis will contribute to the theoretical and museological conversation concerning objects and their representation in the aftermath of trauma, with an emphasis on interobjectivity as a tool to combat consumptive empathy. Stressing the dialogic and relational functions of material witnesses will underscore the ultimate responsibility of the museumgoer to take on the role of secondary witness, a position that is perhaps fraught with unclear obligations, but is nevertheless crucial in the transmission of difficult histories.
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