Brown Bag Seminar: Wed, 4th May 2010

Brown Bag Seminar, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK. 4th of May

On the relationship between testimony, memory and art: Some thoughts based on the use of art objects at the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne.

Andrea Witcomb


Taking its cue from Charlotte Delbo’s powerful writing about the Holocaust in which she highlights the role of sense memories in the expression of trauma, this paper begins with the proposition that sense memories – as distinct from narrative or vicarious forms of memory – are a particularly effective vehicle for the communication of past trauma in the present. The paper explores the potential value of this proposition for the display of art objects in a community based Holocaust museum in a context where the desire to give testimony is paramount. The paper will use the example of sculptural works about the Holocaust from two very different contexts – in one case, those made by a survivor and in the other, those made by a Jewish migrant who left Poland in the 1920s. Despite their very different experiences of the Holocaust, I will argue that both artists register their sense memories in their sculptures and that, in doing so, they help the Museum to create a bridge between the survivor community and the wider general public. The argument hinges on a particular interpretation of the testimony process by Auerhahn and Laub, (1990) who argue that all testimonies require that audiences listen in a manner that makes them a witness to past traumas. This listening process, I want to argue, offers not only an opportunity for healing on the part of survivors but also, following Simon (2005), the exchange of a ‘terrible gift’. That gift, I will suggest, places the visitor as a witness to past traumas and builds an ethical request that they should actively work against future genocides. Central to that possibility, I want to argue, is the way in which the process of witnessing a sense memory is an affective experience for the viewer leading to the potential production of empathy.


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