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  • Visitors to the House of Memory: Identity and Political Education at the Jewish Museum Berlin by Victoria Bishop Kendzia
  • Johannes Zechner
Visitors to the House of Memory: Identity and Political Education at the Jewish Museum Berlin. By Victoria Bishop Kendzia. New York: Berghahn, 2018. Pp. xi + 161. Cloth $110.00. ISBN 978-1785336393.

Since museums began to appeal to ever broader audiences, the intellectual clout of university-based researchers has diminished. Institutions such as the Jewish Museum Berlin are attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year; the readers of academic books and journal articles clearly pale in comparison with that figure. Especially in the fields of history and culture, these museums also function as important arenas for debates over identity and belonging. Whereas previously many publications about the Jewish Museum were issued by the institution itself, Victoria Bishop Kendzia's book promises to offer a welcome external and critical perspective on its activities.

Visitors to the House of Memory focuses on processes of "choreographed remembrance" (7) through which young people interact with the Jewish Museum's permanent exhibition and architecture. To that end, Bishop Kendzia analyzed group visits by classes in history and/or political science from seven Berlin high schools. [End Page 682] Combining methods drawn from European ethnology and museum studies, she acted as a participant-observer and conducted qualitative interviews informed by questionnaires completed by the students before and after their visits. True to the disciplinary spirit of self-reflexivity, she early on reveals her Canadian-British-Jewish family background and her move to Berlin some years ago.

In theoretical terms, the study is clearly influenced by approaches from the "new museology," which has expanded the scope of interest from technical questions of collecting and exhibiting to the broader spheres of politics and society. Thus, Bishop Kendzia conceptualizes the Jewish Museum as "a site of political education" (19) somewhere between museum and memorial, where manifold understandings of the past and lessons for the future are negotiated. Visits to the Jewish Museum are understood by her as situational and spatial performances in which the participants are actively engaging with the exhibits instead of merely passively absorbing information.

The major results of the study lend further support to a finding now almost universally accepted in the scholarship: memory and remembrance are necessarily fragmented and versatile, not—as some politicians or propagandists might wish to be the case—monolithic and constant. Based on a notion of "flexible, shifting identity" (x), Bishop Kendzia reveals sometimes glaring differences in attitude and behavior between the various groups of visitors to the Jewish Museum under observation. This is especially striking because all grew up in Germany after 1989 and were educated within the same school system.

As an interesting case in point, most high school students from West Berlin expressed a much deeper Betroffenheit in relation to the Holocaust—which is not, however, the main focus of the Jewish Museum—than their counterparts from the East. In the same vein, they expressed more seriousness and rigidity while displaying a "moved Germanness" (97), perceptible, for example, in body language and volume of voice. As for the underlying reasons for this phenomenon, Bishop Kendzia dares only to speculate: she convincingly mentions the influence of teachers and parents, who were socialized in separate cultures of remembrance, but also the importance of Christian ideas of atonement.

An informative comparison can be made with a control group from the Neukölln district, comprising a large number of immigrants, mostly from Turkish or Arab backgrounds. Those high school students from West Berlin seemed less familiar with the "performative guilt trope" (134) mentioned above, which is why they behaved less confidently in their interactions and were more alert to the watchful gaze of the museum staff. Bishop Kendzia uses this example to argue for a different educational approach in which the Jewish Museum—and other museums, one might add—should pay greater attention to cultural inclusivity and controversial multiperspectivity.

Visitors to the House of Memory clearly benefits from the author's standpoint between outsider and insider and from repeated reflections about her own positioning [End Page 683] vis-à-vis students, teachers, and staff of the Jewish Museum. In...


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