When parsed carefully, the objects, in their tangibility, provide a variety of stakeholders with an opportunity to debate the meaning and control of their memories. Elaine Heumann Gurian

 

Letters, photos and personal items from the USHMM. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Regina Gordon and Anna Nodel

Recollecting What Remains

By Nils Roemer

History matters in an age of displacement, war and conflict. Ordinary things and objects have stories and meanings for people. They "continually assert their presence as simultaneously material force and symbol. They frame the way we act in the world, as well as the way we think about the world.” They recall for us forgotten, hidden, and even a destroyed past.  This project curates and studies objects and memories that reflect upon dislocation, dispossession, and destruction. Attached to them is a mournful memory or what the scholar Svetlana Boym has called reflective nostalgia; a remembrance that is predicated on a deep rupture and takes the past as a mournful subject to which one cannot return.
They are what remains; the debris of violence and loss. They are not objects of longing but of rupture and freight. As such they are not just products of the past but also of their safe-keeping and preservation. Instead of studying these objects solely from their perspective of their ruination, the curio project seeks to study the afterlife of the remains. A curio is an organizer to hold many things. It is an act of recollection not unlike Walter Benjamin who in his essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, 1931, contemplates on the act of collecting. He insists that it is a “relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness.”. Unpacking his library became an exercise in recollecting and recalling and refilling books with images and memories. Similarly, The Curio Project aims to attach once again individual memories to artifacts. It is a collaborative and educational platform to foster new ways of curating, seeing and interpreting.


Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History 
By Steven Lubar and Kathleen Kendrick

Start | Artifacts Tell their Own Stories | Artifacts Connect People | Artifacts Mean Many Things 
Artifacts Capture a Moment | Artifacts Reflect Changes | Telling Many Stories

Artifacts—the objects we make and use—are part of American history. If we know how to look at them, they can be sources for better understanding our history. While textbooks focus on the great documents of the American past, or the important events, artifacts can show us another kind of history, another way of approaching the past. This Web site will tell you how to look closely at artifacts and how to think about the ways they shape and reflect our history.

Why bother looking at artifacts, which can be hard to understand, when there are so many documents around, and when documents seem so much more straightforward? Why do museums save artifacts at all, when it would be so much easier just to save pictures of them?

There are two ways to answer this question. Artifacts, we believe, are, and were, important. According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, objects "continually assert their presence as simultaneously material force and symbol. They frame the way we act in the world, as well as the way we think about the world."1 To understand the past, we have to understand the artifacts of the past.

But they are also important to us as a way to approach the past. Museum Director Elaine Gurian suggests that artifacts provide us a way into history. "Objects, in their tangibility," she writes, "provide a variety of stakeholders with an opportunity to debate the meaning and control of their memories." Artifacts are the touchstones that bring memories and meanings to life. They make history real. Moreover, it is a reality that can and should be viewed from different perspectives. When museums choose not to enshrine and isolate an artifact but instead open it up to new interpretations and different points of view, they provide opportunities to challenge and enhance our understanding of the past. Look at the artifacts on this web site, and around you, as reminders of the complexity of the past. To fully appreciate the complexity of artifacts—and of history—we must not only acknowledge their multiple and conflicting meanings, but embrace them.

As you look at the artifacts on this web site, think about them not as simple, unproblematic things—things with one story, one role to play in history. Rather, consider each artifact with its many stories as holding diverse meanings for different people, past and present. Think of them as bits of contested history. It is because of the contest and conflict they embody, and the way they combine use and meaning, that artifacts are such valuable tools for exploring the past.

Looking closely at artifacts, putting them into historical context, and using them to understand the past, is exactly the kind of work that goes on in a museum. Curators make it their mission to discover and tell these stories, to put objects back into history. So as you look at these artifacts, and the documents with them, imagine that you're curating your own exhibit. What stories do the objects tell? What documents, and what stories from you history books, help you to understand what the objects meant to the people of the past? What can you say about the past by using objects? How can you tell visitors to your exhibit what you've learned?

 

 

 

ACKERMAN CENTER FOR HOLOCAUST STUDIES

Zsuzsanna Ozsváth 
Nils Roemer
David Patterson
 

CONTRIBUTORS

 

Rawad Alhashmi
Donna Gosbee
Jae Jerkins                    
Mary Catherine Mueller
Amal Shafek
Sarah Valente
Cricket Vauthier Roemer
 

 

RECOMMENDED

Gabor Maté
Steven Lubar
Kathleen Kendrick
Elaine Heumann Gurian

 

PARTNERSHIPS