Auschwitz: The New Narrative
February 19, 2011
Twentieth century historic preservation faced innumerable challenges, none greater than the conservation and interpretation of Nazi death camps. As Michael Kimmelman writes in today’s New York Times, telling the story of Auschwitz in the post-war years was a matter of reminding the world of its atrocities by showing their detritus–bones, shoes, boxcars, gas chambers. Today, with so many alive during World War II passing or too old to go to the memorials, a younger generation must be given a different narrative without trivializing the artifacts at the site.
Although preserving the memories of murder and ethnic cleansing is a gruesome task, it is all the more necessary in the twenty first century. Auschwitz taught the world that even the most horrifying historic places deserved to be memorialized and saved from destruction because humanity could not live without them. The ethical imperative for preserving the stench of death in gas chambers became clear when Pol Pot ravaged Cambodia with his killing sprees and the Serbs and Bosnians shot and buried each other in secret mass graves.
The new stewards of Auschwitz have been called upon to lead the world to a different, but ethically authentic, interpretation of the site. This is not only their challenge, but also our challenge as a global culture. Historic preservation as a discipline has advanced since the days of Colonial house museums and celebrations of opulence at Versailles. We must have the courage and creativity to interpret historic sites with disturbing histories in ways that bring their history to life as vividly as those we celebrate as exemplars of past glories. For every Mount Vernon there is a Civil War battlefield or Klan lynching site in the south. All deserve to be interpretive with rich, evocative narratives.
One of the ways in which building and landscape conservation can continue to provide meaning is by taking on the challenges of these places we may want to forget. The memory of death burns vividly in every mind, and we would do well to consider how remembering mass murder, no matter how terrifying, can light the way to a more peaceful world in the future.