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Difficult displays : Holocaust representations in history museums in Hungary, Austria and Italy after 1990 Meyer, Birga Ulrike


This study analyses how history museums in Austria, Hungary and Italy, represent the Holocaust. With close reference to debates about European Holocaust commemoration, it addresses how these exhibitions in countries closely related to Germany during the Holocaust construct the past as an object of knowledge/power. It also examines how the conceptualisation of historical agency assigns meaning and creates specific subject positions for the visitor. The research includes 21 different permanent exhibitions, established after 1989/1990, from which four, deemed representative, form the case studies. In Austria the author chose the Zeitgeschichte Museum in Ebensee, in Hungary the Holokauszt Emlékközpont in Budapest, and in Italy the Museo della Deportazione in Prato and the Museo Diffuso della Resistenza, della Deportazione, della Guerra, dei Diritti e della Libertà in Turin. Within the case studies Birga U. Meyer analyses how prisoner uniforms, perpetrator photographs, objects from concentration camps, and (video-) testimonies of survivors are displayed. The method is a discourse analysis following Michel Foucault, applied to museum exhibitions by Mieke Bal. Daniel Levy’s and Natan Sznaider’s view that global, national and regional discourse formations form new, hybrid narratives provides the theoretical framework. The findings suggest that three worldwide approaches to the Holocaust structure the exhibitions: the division of the Holocaust into four stages; an emphasis on perpetrator history; and an attempted pluralisation of the victim groups. These structuring elements are explained via national narratives, which exemplify, change, adapt or supplement the worldwide components. Regional discourses are less decisive and European discourse formations not yet influential to the museum representations. The mode of representation draws in each case on an aesthetics understood as the adequate representation of the Holocaust in that national context. What the exhibitions have in common is an authoritative presentation of one historical truth and an illustrative, functional use of primary sources. Historical agency – the forces/actors responsible for historical developments – is assigned to different agents: developments within society; the perpetrators; the victims; or everyone. It is this that distinguishes the different exhibitions from one another: and in result the meaning given to the Holocaust and subject positions offered differ.

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