American exceptionalism and the Shoah : the case of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / David L. Worthington.
This dissertation analyzes the rhetoric of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a site that constructs, articulates, and advances an ideology of American exceptionalism. The critical thrust of the project is to demonstrate how the museum produces a narrow set of terministic screens for understanding American connections to the European holocaust that make it difficult to productively engage problematic instances of U.S. history such as slavery and the genocide of the native Americans. To this end, the study focuses on public debates surrounding the founding and placement of the museum, the narrative of the museum's Permanent Exhibit, the physical exhibits that shape American exceptionalism, and the ways in which visitors respond to the museum story in comment books. The argument unfolds in 5 stages. The first stage examines the ways in which public debate during the museum's planning stages took up the issue of the propriety of a "Holocaust" museum in the U.S. and then addressed where the museum would be located and what kind of narrative would be consistent with placing the museum in close proximity to the National Mall. Stage two explores the museum's insistence on a strictly defined and overly simplistic narrative that marks the participants in the Shoah as victims, perpetrators, or liberators. Stage three focuses on the narrative of the museum's Permanent Exhibit, where the museum interpellates visitors as "witnesses" without providing a clear sense of what the act of witnessing entails. In the fourth stage "citizenship" is made passive by exhibits that evoke a sense of tragedy and atrocity that exists "over there" (in Europe) and whose victims are "other" and outside the bounds and protection of American style liberal democracy. Stage four shifts focus from the narrative as articulated by museum curators and towards the way visitors respond to the museum in comment books, and in particular on the most common response by museum visitors that they feel "sad." "Sadness," I argue, is a problematic public emotion that represses civic action. The project concludes in stage five by discussing ways in which exhibits might be added that would widen our terministic understanding of the past so as to allow for a more productive consideration of the ways in which and the topos of "atrocity" implicates the politics of genocide.
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