Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Preservation of Evil

Growing up Jewish in 1950s Queens, Mark Jacobson used to wonder why the tough Italian kids referred to him and his friends as "lampshades." You can put that down to being a kid, and to protective parenting. There are few people today who are unaware that among the miriad of horrors inflicted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, there was the manufacture of items from the remains of their victims; gold from fillings, hair for blankets, and - notoriously - lampshades from skin. The lampshade story is a persistent one. The only problem is that, other than testimony from survivors and a 3 second film clip taken after the liberation of Buchenwald, there is no real evidence for such lampshades. Unless you count the one that turned up, unsolicited, at Jacobson's apartment in 2006.

The lampshade forms the core of an extraordinary book of the same name, written by Jacobson and published earlier this year. I highly recomend it as a fascinating, if deeply unsettling read, but if you want the potted version you can take a look at this piece in The Independent. One of the most interesting parts of the story involves Jacobson's attempt to donate the lampshade to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. where he hits a brick wall, in the form of Diane Saltzman, the Museum's head of collections. As far as Saltzmann is concerned, the skin lampshades are a myth. Her rationale is an interesting one, and one that's worth unpacking if you, like me, happen to work in a museum. It relates to the two touchstones of accessioning; provenance and relevance.

Jacobsen believed that he had three pieces of evidence that demonstrated that the lampshade may be a product of the Holocaust. First, DNA tests showed that the material of the shade was of human origin. Then there was the appearance of the solder used on the lampshade frame, which the original buyer had noticed was similar to that seen in German-made guitars. Finally there was the assertion of the seller, a former graveyard thief from New Orleans, that the lampshade was made from "the skin of Jews." Would you accept that as adequate provenance? No, of course you wouldn't, and neither did Saltzman. She listed some of the things Jacobson should also have done; tested the age of the thread holding the lampshade panels together, the metal of the frame itself. By Jacobson's own admission the preservation of DNA was insufficient to prove ethnicity. And there was no information as to how the lampshade ended up in New Orleans, where a friend found it for sale.

But, as Saltzman  went on to explain, even if the object had watertight provenance, even if you could prove that it was made from a Buchenwald prisoner ca. 1943, that wouldn't be enough. The Museum's educational mission relates to the Holocaust, and the making of lampshades, horrific though it might be, wasn't part of the machinery of the Holocaust. If anything it's an example of individual pyschopathy, rather than the institutional psychopathy that makes the Holocaust so unique. There's even an argument, proposed by Saltzman and expanded upon in a later interview with Michael Berenbaum, the Museum's project director from 1988 to 1997, that these kind of objects are a distraction; as Berenbaum says "they are a form of pornography, because people focus on them to the exclusion of everything else." Furthermore, they can't be displayed because of the strong sentiment felt by many people, and critically by many Holocaust survivors, that showing the objects is disrespectful to the victims.

So no provenance, and no relevance to the institution's mission. That should be more than enough to give a thumbs-down to accessioning. But that still leaves the fundamental question, which Jacobson asks and Saltzman declines to answer - what do I do with this thing? Reading the book, I found myself questioning my own attitudes. Before I was a paleontologist, I worked in mammal and general zoology collections, both of which frequently contain human remains. I vividly remember fishing in a tank full of flayed animal carcasses, my arm submerged to the shoulder in almost opaque ethanol, trying to find a pickled human baby that had been "misfiled." My feeling when I finally managed to identify an infant foot among all the various appendages was one of relief at being able to get my arm out of the tank, rather than horror at what I had pulled up from the depths.

But there was something about the lampshade that made my skin crawl. Surely this thing had no place in a museum? I realized that I was beginning to get some understanding of what indigenous peoples feel when they see human remains in museum collections. For someone who spends his life trying to preserve items, the sense that this was an item that should probably be destroyed was an uncomfortable one.

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