One senior at the University of Pennsylvania is working to improve history through museum design.
As a part of a summer program through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Alex Levy, a 21-year-old history major from Pittsburgh, traveled to Berlin and Washington to study how museums in these major cities represent the Holocaust.
As survivors continue to age, Levy says that society loses its access to firsthand knowledge about the Holocaust, elevating the role of museums as resources, thus making the critique and improvement of these institutions more important.
In August, Levy spent a week in Berlin, visiting The Jewish Museum and the information center under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Consisting of giant cement blocks of varying heights in the center of the city, the memorial houses an information center that focuses entirely on the Holocaust, tracing the history of 10 families.
“This unique approach really stuck with me, as it was very effective in displaying the striking differences between the groups of people who were persecuted by the Nazis, really emphasizing that they were targeted because of their Judaism and no other reason,” Levy says. “It also demonstrated the tremendous loss of life in that out of the 10 families, there was not a single one that survived in its entirety.”
She also spent a day in Washington, studying the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, making observations and taking notes about its overall representation.
In her research, Levy has examined the physical structures and exhibitions of the museums and has spoken with museum curators.
“The purpose of my project, though, is not to simply stay within the confines of the physical structures of the museums,” Levy says.
In addition, she’s done extensive reading about the museums in Washington and Berlin, as well as Holocaust representation in museums in general.
“By analyzing the representations in Berlin and D.C, I hope to make a bigger-picture commentary about how history and memory of the Holocaust have been created in the U.S. and Germany -- and the implications of these representations,” Levy says.
She started this journey in early 2015 when she began the history thesis course. During the spring semester, she spent most of her time developing her topic and gathering resources for later stages of the project. Now that she’s completed the bulk of her physical research by visiting the two museums, she will spend her time this semester looking at more sources and writing her thesis, “Informed Mourning: Museum Representation of the Holocaust in Berlin and D.C.”
She found one key difference between the two institutions.
Levy says that the U.S. museum presents itself as a comprehensive Holocaust museum for the United States, whereas in Berlin something of this magnitude does not really exist.
“The Jewish Museum in Berlin is meant to present, as the name suggests, the history of German Jews. While this requires that the museum include the Holocaust in its exhibition; it is not primarily a Holocaust museum,” Levy explains.
She decided to include the Jewish Museum in her project because it provides such a compelling and well-visited representation of the Holocaust. But, because it’s not a comprehensive Holocaust museum for Germany in the same way that the American museum is for the U.S., she made the decision to include the information center under the memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in her analysis.
“Professor Childers has an incredible base of knowledge of the period, as anyone who has taken his courses will know, and he is also extremely kind and personable,” Levy says. “He is always willing to speak to me about my project even if I am just looking to flesh out some ideas or speak generally about my research, which has been very helpful at moments when I feel that I desperately need to talk through next steps in the research process.”
Levy says that she learned the value of the multiple undergraduate research opportunities available through the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and encourages other students to participate.
“It is important as a student to take ownership of a project and pursue research that interests you,” Levy says. “I learned how much support professors and faculty members are willing to provide for their students when asked and how fulfilling it can be to independently pursue a research project on a topic that you feel passionately about.”
When she’s not immersed in her research, Levy serves as a member of the Alpha Phi sorority and the History undergraduate advisory board and as the vice president of programming on the Panhellenic Council.
Information provided by University of Pennsylvania