What is the role of museums and memorials in countering distortion?
On 10 October 2021, a protest took place against the coronavirus measures at the piata Universitatii in downtown Bucharest. Among a sea of Romanian flags, one protestor held a sign bearing the words “Vaccination makes you free” in the form of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp gates.
My colleagues and I at the Elie Wiesel Institute were horrified. Witnessing such blatant distortion of history in the streets of our city was deeply upsetting – for us as professionals working in the field of Holocaust research but also for the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants. And we don’t only see this phenomenon in Romania but all over the world.
As Director of Communications for the Elie Wiesel National Institute in Romania and the Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Group on Memorials and Museums, my conversations with colleagues over the days and weeks that followed the protest in Bucharest lead me to reflect on the role that our institutions play in countering Holocaust distortion. From preserving history to educating future generations, museums and memorials are essential in shaping the communities they exist within.
Here are three reasons why museums and memorials have a key role to play in the fight against rising Holocaust distortion all over the world.
1. Preserving History
Museums are bearers of history. They collect, safeguard, and make accessible artifacts and documents which they hold in trust for society. We do this as mark of respect for the victims and the survivors.
Museums not only preserve the evidence of the past, but also present them, ensuring that the truth is shared and accessible. When the history is well-known and the evidence of that history is available to all, it becomes more difficult for distortive narratives to enter the mainstream.
2. Educating Society
Museums are places of learning. Memorial museums have a special obligation to civic education. At the Elie Wiesel Institute, we regularly welcome groups to explore historical aspects of the Holocaust and its contemporary consequences.
But the role of memorials and museums in supporting education about the Holocaust goes beyond schools and universities. My colleagues within the IHRA work to educate and encourage reflection on the history of the Holocaust with diverse groups such as military professionals, police, journalists and judges to name just a few.
Equipping different pillars of society with historical knowledge of the Holocaust and the mechanisms and processes that lead to the genocide means these groups are more likely to be able to identify distortion when they see it and critically reflect on their own role in preventing distortion.
3. Building Community
Museums bring people together. The stories that memorial museums have to tell can be difficult. They range from the depths of horror to the heights of heroism. But museums provide a place for people to explore these complex stories for learning and inspiration.
Museums help societies deal openly and accurately with the past. Building a community and a culture of remembrance around the stories of the Holocaust strengthens the sense of shared responsibility for this history within society. These stories and this history belong to all of us. We all have a role to play in countering distortion.
Elisabeth Ungureanu is Director of Communications and Administration at the The “Elie Wiesel” National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Bucharest. She is the current chair of the IHRA Memorials and Museums Working Group which brings together leading memorial and museums professionals from more than 35 countries.
A joint initiative by the European Commission, the United Nations, UNESCO, and the IHRA, the #ProtectTheFacts campaign is the first and only campaign to focus exclusively on raising awareness about recognizing and countering Holocaust distortion.
Would your museums or memorial like to take a stand against distortion? Join the campaign.
The views expressed by the individual contributors to the blog do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the United Nations, UNESCO, or officials of Member States of the European Commission, IHRA, the United Nations and UNESCO.