The material culture of trauma with Jane Klinger

Jane Klinger - Keynote Speaker Jewish Studies ClassCourtesy of by UDaily photographer, Kathy Atkinson
Material objects from the Holocaust give museum-goers a glimpse into the realities of the tragedy.


Behind the scenes of the intricate exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are the historian curators. Their job is to emphasize specific aspects of the artifacts to reflect their difficult histories. Telling the story of the Holocaust through material objects gives museum goers a different insight into the horrors and realities of the Holocaust.

Jane Klinger is the chief conservator at the museum and a Coremans Fellow in the preservation studies program at the university. The Jewish studies department hosted her lecture on Wednesday. Entitled “Preserving Memory,” it focused on the material culture of trauma and how curators go about determining what objects to include in exhibits.

The event presented by the Jewish studies department was also sponsored by the English, History and Museum Studies departments in the lecture, causing the room to be so filled, there were not enough seats for all those in attendance.

“It’s very important to have guest speakers come in,” Kathleen Capallo, an organizer for the event, says. “It’s one thing to read about artifacts and stories in a book, but it’s a completely different situation to have someone who works in the field and who has that experience come in and discuss.”

Klinger gave many examples in her lecture of the personal stories behind specific objects. She showed photos of teddy bears, maps and suitcases from World War II and explained how she goes about displaying these objects on exhibit.

She told the story of a specific family’s donation of a map marking their journey to Russia. Because it would have looked suspicious to be documenting their route, they hid it in a child’s suitcase. Klinger talked about the discussion that went into deciding how to display the suitcase and map.

“What we are constantly seeking is a balance,” Klinger says, speaking about preserving an item while also trying to keep its original components. “We’re trying to walk that tightrope between full treatment and preserving the history.”

Klinger also talked about the people who donate to the museum, giving examples of emotional survivor testimonies to illustrate the humanity and traumatic pasts associated with these objects.

“There were a number of times when a survivor came in with their adult child and sat with a curator, and for the first time, they actually hear the story of what their parent went through,” Klinger says. “They created a safe space for that parent to talk to their child about the horrific period in their lives.”

Klinger also spoke about the fibers of the materials in the objects, the way that they are constructed and how their environment impacts the way they are now.

“The objects themselves have a history, and the more you look at objects, the more you’re able to peel away the different layers of that history.” Klinger says, “Even if the words on the page do not directly state the hardships of the time, the components of the object do.”

The United States Holocaust Museum is in the midst of creating an exhibit on what was happening in America during World War II. Klinger says that there have been many meetings about this exhibition. With a focus on the importance of the material culture of the Holocaust, the museum continues to create valuable and focused exhibits that emphasize the importance of displaying real and authentic objects to their spectators.

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