Rethinking the Reader’s Role: Ethical Lessons from the Curation of Holocaust Memorial Sites and Museums

By Kelly Moffitt

I’d spent a year studying the impact of participatory journalism on the concept of journalistic gatekeeping before I finally understood how it must feel to be a reader and not a writer of news. In pursuing my Master’s degree in journalism, I’d professed to understand readers’ wants and needs from the news because I had studied community engagement in the news. The difference between studying readers and knowing how it feels to be one became clear as I stood under the gate of Auschwitz I, with the oppressive “Arbeit Macht Frei” looming against blue-black rain clouds.

Entrance to Auschwitz I.  Photo by Kelly Moffitt

Entrance to Auschwitz I. Photo by Kelly Moffitt

Our group had spent 20 minutes waiting in the holding area for tourists—a building originally used to intern prisoners upon arrival at the concentration/death camp—and I was getting antsy about being shuffled through such an impersonal process. Our guide met us outside the building, where we plugged in our earbuds, ready to absorb the information about this terrible place. Within the first five minutes, the tour was already overwhelming. Our guide was telling us the most gut-wrenching yet heartwarming story he could find as we walked past the entry gate. It was the story of Samuel Gogol—a harmonica player and survivor forced to play in the Auschwitz prisoner orchestra—who closed his eyes every time he played after seeing his own parents march to their deaths to the sound of his music. In 1995, our guide told us, Gogol returned to Auschwitz, and for the first time, was able to open his eyes while playing the harmonica.

My reaction was probably what you’d expect. I was crying in sadness for all those who did not survive and I was moved by the thought that something so meaningful could come out of something so horrid. A few minutes more into the tour, though, I was angry. I became aware of the narrative I was being pulled into: a carefully constructed narrative intended to make me feel a certain way, a narrative constructed to make me cry, a narrative in which I had no choice but to be drawn into.

That narrative kept going long after I had been able to process any more terrifying information. At that moment, I realized how it must feel to be a reader of the news I write. I carefully construct stories to make readers weep and incite them to action. I had given little care to the readers’ volition. I didn’t give them the opportunity to to chime in, to pause, to let them choose the way they receive information. Every time I write a story, I, too, am a narrator, a gatekeeper, a curator, just like the people who created the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Their curatorial ethics made me want to reexamine mine.

News stories are typically told upside down. We write an attention-grabbing lead, focus our readers’ attention in the nut graf, elaborate with a meaningful quote, and then inundate them with information that backs up our main point. We finally finish up with an impactful quote or anecdote that summarizes but does not repeat previous information, as Carole Rich wrote in Writing and Reporting the News. Inherent in the idea of the creation of the news story is how journalists act as gatekeepers—the process by which they determine what is newsworthy and therefore “news.” We frame the news and we format what we deem newsworthy for maximum impact.

Erica Lehrer and Cynthia Milton, in the introduction to the seminal Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places, show how memorials and museums are framed and curated to elicit visitor reaction:

“Unique challenges arise in attempts to frame memories and documents of violence for public display, and these have inspired innovations in exhibition, museology, public cultural interventions and the activation of memorial sites. And new knowledge emerges when we consider memory—in its spatial, material, public dimensions—not simply as latent in the social fabric, nor only in top-down efforts by the state to encode preferred memory, but also as it is mindfully deployed by individuals and groups in attempts to provoke, enable, and transform. We call, then, for an understanding of museums, monuments, and heritage sites not only as texts that visitors read, but also as sites of practice that are social, embodied, and generative.”

The authors question the traditional construction of memorial sites as top-down institutions. The memorial at Auschwitz I falls into this traditional, singular narrative structure. Lehrer and Milton question the ethics of one authoritative, curatorial voice. They ask questions like: “[Is the point of curation now] to create social space for a shared experience of looking, listening, and talking, creating alternative relationships and publics, for constructive meaning making and action taking?”

While museums have already moved into the realm of “new museology” or the democratization of authority, journalism is just begrudgingly starting to catch up. Participatory, citizen, community-engaged journalism has stepped forward as the force looking to destabilize traditional authority in journalism. Now, readers are able to have more say in what is covered in the news, how it is covered and when they opt in or out; they are also given a chance to discuss and modify the stories as they go. This is essential for the transformation of journalism from gatekeeper authority to more of a shared space where we allow readers to question, engage, participate and make change.

Allowing museum-goers and journalistic readers more of a stake in their learning raises more ethical questions, ones that are suited to the more modern question of how we take atrocity and actually learn from it. “Complicated compromises must be reached vis-à-vis the display and interpretation of artifacts and experiences. Further, the goal of curatorial work is no longer simply to represent but to make things happen,” writes Lehrer. Teaching museum and journalistic “audiences” how to interpret and question is just as important as giving them information. It teaches them how to make things happen. The Auschwitz I memorial made me a passive participant lacking the ability to question, to pause, to chart my own course. While I appreciated every minute of the experience, I also felt that I was being funneled through a narrative that wanted me to come out the other end feeling a certain way. Being put in this situation made me realize even more fervently the duty we owe both museum-goers and readers of the news—we need to create spaces for participation, dialogue and the dismantling of authority because that, in turn, teaches efficacy, empowerment and the ability to question the world we live in.

Works Cited

Lehrer, Erica and Milton, Cynthia. (2011). Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Rich, Carole. (2009). Writing and Reporting the News: A Coaching Method. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

One Response to “Rethinking the Reader’s Role: Ethical Lessons from the Curation of Holocaust Memorial Sites and Museums”

  1. Mary Delle LeBeau says:

    Kelly,

    First of all, so very well written!! Your use of descriptive words interspersed with academic and colloquial vocabulary is very impressive. Above all, you most astutely spoke of the dis-empowered reader/listener. I purposely choose not to read certain news articles and the accompanying photos just because they give me no choice but to be horrified and shocked. It would be amazing if more journalists began to realize what affect they have on their readers/listeners and become more cognizant of what position they put them into. Thank you for a incisive discussion of this issue.

    All my love,

    Aunt Mary Delle