Graduation Year

2022

Date of Submission

4-2022

Document Type

Campus Only Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

History

Reader 1

Wendy Lower

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Abstract

This thesis focuses on the role of politics and national memory in shaping two history museums’ mission, exhibits, programming, and influence on civil society. Specifically, this thesis provides a comparative analysis of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., and the POLIN Museum of the History of Jews in Poland in Warsaw, Poland. This thesis asks: How have the two institutions’ founding concepts been altered over time? How and when did the institutions respond to demands to apply their mission to current events or political causes? What was the context for doing so, politically, socially, or culturally? A comparison of the USHMM and the POLIN museums illustrates that, regardless of the climate the museums exist in, national museums are inherently political, and as socio-cultural institutions are thus shaped by the national memory of their country’s history represented in their exhibitions and programming. The Holocaust did not happen on U.S. soil. Thus, the USHMM’s narrative approach balances the uniqueness of the Holocaust with empathy and tolerance education centered on the Jewish experience but extended to other victims of genocide. In POLIN, the narrative tensions revolves around separating the Jewish history from the history of Polish suffering during the Holocaust. As such, POLIN museum’s narrative focuses not on the massive death during the Holocaust (Poland’s graveyards), but on the profound loss of Jewish civilization and culture. An examination of these two museums side-by-side reveals that museums, while often seen as neutral institutions, can hardly avoid politicization especially because these are history museums that are tasked with presenting a single national story for diverse audiences. There are clear differences in the museums’ approaches to Holocaust history and memorialization, driven not only by their varied interpretations of the past but also in their willingness to align their missions and activities to the expectations of government leaders and popular myths. Furthermore, these museums must constantly navigate how to stay true to the complexities and gray zones of this history and remain relevant vis a vis popular memories and legends that tend to oversimplify and suppress shameful chapters. Each western nation embroiled in the Holocaust has its own unique history of the era, different experiences, understandings, and legacies that are discussed, debated and on display simultaneously at the USHMM and POLIN.

This thesis is restricted to the Claremont Colleges current faculty, students, and staff.

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