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Prosthetic Memory: Alison Landsberg, Transferential Spaces, and Empathy/Exploitation

Thanks for all the encouragement last week! This is a really exciting project for me, as while I’ve written sporadic blog posts before, I’ve never written an academic blog, so this is all new to me, as well as figuring out WordPress. I’m encouraged by all your support.

This week, I read Prosthetic Memory; The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture by Alison Landberg. My good friend and mentor David McKenzie (@dpmckenzie) suggested this to me a while ago, and although it took me a year to get there, I am very glad that I read it because Landsberg’s work seems very much aligned with what I hope to study. That being said…

Last week’s book was a good ease-in back to academic reading with an academic book geared toward a more general audience, but this was a return to full-on academia. I made it to page 3 before I stumbled across the word “interpellation”, a reference to Louis Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses…. Thinking about my work here as a public scholar interpreting scholarly books for a wider audience, I am trying to be more cognizant of being welcome to a public history audience in my posts. Which is why I’ve arranged this post in a different way- summarizing the book, followed by a few questions that relate to the museum profession.

Prosthetic Memory; The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture

Summary of the Book

Lansberg is a professor at George Mason in both the Cultural Studies and History/Art History department, and her background is in film studies. This particular work introduces the concept of prosthetic memory, which she defines as, after an experience with a narrative about the past such as a movie or museum, an individual “does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but takes on a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past event through which he or she did not live” (2). Her basic theory, as I see it, is that someone can have an emotive memory of something they only experienced through a mass culture interaction, and that this prosthetic memory can not only form a person’s identity, but be used by state apparatuses for political purposes. Lansberg starts her work out by analyzing an early 20th century film to discuss where representations of memory have been located in the body, and then explains how this theory applies to three particular historic moments in American history: European immigration at the turn of the century, slavery, and the Holocaust (as experienced in public memory). While it is not a set model, in general she uses two different techniques to make her point: a literary analysis that exemplifies a character creating a prosthetic memory, followed by an example for public discourse or public life when a viewer or audience is being asked to create a prosthetic memory. For example, when discussing memory of slavery, she first uses a literary analysis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the characters engage in prosthetic memory through the unborn character Beloved, then goes on to discuss the creation of a slave ship in the Charles Wright African American History Museum in Detroit, where the bodies of Detroit children were used as the models of mannequins recreating the slave experience.

Questions Relating to the Museum Field

How do we ensure that our museum experiences are not creating second-hand trauma?

Landsberg’s final example analyzed the American response/experience/literature of the Holocaust, using Schindler’s List, Maus and the experience of visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (where the exhibit participant is asked to create a prosthetic memory). Since it had been a while since I had read Peter Novick’s controversial text The Holocaust in American Life, I appreciated her summary of the evolution of Holocaust memory: from a cultural silence during the 1940s until the 1960s(when Americans could actually take concrete action), to the emergence of mass Holocaust memory in the 1970s following the Anne Frank miniseries, increasing concern for Israel’s survival, and the publication of Maus, exploding into the visceral depictions of the Holocaust with the USHMM opening in 1994 and the release of Schindler’s List in 1993 (115).

Also in discussing Holocaust memory, she shares an experience that is fascinating to dissect as a museum professional. After explaining her theory that experiential museums can be transferential space, which she defines as “spaces which might actually instill in us “symptoms’ or “prosthetic memories” through which we did not actually live but to which we now, after a museum or a filmic experience, have an experiential relationship” (135). Lansberg experienced this firsthand while inside the museum conducting research; a vent malfunctioned and started spewing smoke, but instead of coming to a logical conclusion about the source of smoke, Landsberg instead believes for a second that she is being gassed.

As a museum professional who often deals with difficult topics, I often worry about the “decompression” and “reflection” spaces we give visitors after such experiences. I understand the emotional and educational (looking at empathy as a tool for education) value of such experiences, as does Landsberg–who writes “for the event to become meaningful enough to retain as part of our intellectual and emotional archive–the archive on which our future actions might be based–it must be significant on a cognitive level and palpable in an individual, affective way” (138). Emotional transferrence without a proper reflection can be incredibly psychologically damaging to exhibition visitors, violating our number #1 priority that we will teach and provoke visitors while keeping them safe. I know I experienced a transferential space in a way that was incredibly damaging due to poor exhibit design; while observing the famous travelling Pompei exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry last October, I became very upset while looking at the casts of the bodies trapped in ash. While I would have liked a space to decompress and reflect upon the humanity of this experience, the next space that we passed into in the exhibit flow was not a reflection space, but rather a commercialized space. I left the museum feeling extraordinarily psychologically vulnerable, confused and upset, and angry about the commercialization of these people’s deaths. In reflecting upon her own experience of displacement and second-hand trauma while at the Holocaust Museum, Lansberg reflects that the experience was a tool of empathy-building, rather than (like mine) a place of vulnerability where my needs as a visitor were not met. In thinking about curating these types of experiences

Did Holocaust memory, in fact, give us the vernacular to discuss historical traumas in which the U.S. bears direct (rather than indirect) culpability?

In thinking about this question, I return to Landsberg’s analysis of Peter Novick’s work The Holocaust in American Life. In discussing this book, Landsberg mentions Novick’s original conclusion that the U.S. fascination with the Holocaust has replaced Americans understanding their culpability to historical traumas of our own causing, such as the genocide of Native Americans, casualties of the Vietnamese, and the ongoing racial trauma of African-Americans (115). She disagrees with his conclusion and presents her own interpretation that the Holocaust has created for Americans a vernacular vocabulary in applied memory that we can use for events in which we are more culpable.

Although this text was published nearly fifteen years ago, her postulation about the role of the Holocaust in giving us a vocabulary to discuss the historical traumas of our own making has lived out. For example, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta opened in 2015 with an interactive experience that remains this day (for me), the most powerful museum interactive i’ve ever experienced–the lunch counter interactive. In this interactive, visitors are asked to sit as a lunch counter, literally using their bodies to perform the actions of a Greensboro lunch counter sit-in participant, wearing headphones as the racist White crowd intimidates, insults, and whispers threats into your ears. I participated in this interactive and made it thirty seconds before being so overwhelmed that I had to take the headphones off. While I remember from discussions at AAM 2015 (hosted in Atlanta right after the exhibition opening) that the reaction was mixed among the critical museum community, I think it’s indisputable to argue that the Holocaust Museum opened the door for these types of experience to permeate into American museum culture.


How do we create a public memory that is not centralized on Whiteness or making White people feel ownership of non-white narratives?

As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking that Whiteness seemed to be implicitly centralized in this book. Many of her examples seemed predicated that empathy resulted from when a non-victimized American population realizes the suffering of a more-marginalized population. One of her observations of prosthetic memory is that it transcends ancestry or cultural heritage memory. For example, she writes, “With technologies of mass culture it becomes even more possible to take on prosthetic memories across color lines, in effect, to take on memories that are not a person’s ancestral inheritance or heritage” (100). In her conclusion, she delineates over and over that this type of prosthetic memory can be used for progressive ends when we can get members of majority groups to better empathize with minorities. However, I cannot help but see some problematic implications of what she is suggesting.

First of all, from a museum studies perspective, it brings to mind audience as a question, and whether or not museums devoted to a particular experience are internal or external focused? For example, I would characterize the Holocaust Museum as external-focused; while Jewish audiences (and survivor audiences for the communities they target with their special exhibits) are an important core constituency, they are focused on a larger audience. From my understanding of state Holocaust Museums, I would also say this is true as well. And from just pure geographical location, I would say that most Holocaust Museums don’t make it their primary concern to appeal to survivors or survivors families (although they inherently probably mean something different to communities with a direct tie to the Holocaust).

On the other hand, there have been several examples of new and older museums of the African-American experience and of other minority experiences that celebrate difference, and definitely do not cater to a majority-white audience. For example, the recent This American Life podcast episode about the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore highlights that the visitation experience there is primarily people of color, and that demographics is reflected in the staff as well. I would hypothesize that smaller, localized museums (such as the Cambodian American Museum in Chicago, the Museum of the Boat People in San Jose, the Mitchel Museum of American Indians outside of Chicago) that tell particular ethnic stories and are generally volunteer-dependent or only have a few paid staff, probably also cater less to the general audience and instead are focused mainly on the community that they interpret. For example, my impression is often these museums are focused on bringing down stories of their community/the experience of their community to future generations, who may be more Americanized.

In some ways, I would say that creating prosthetic experiences to develop empathy among White people/majority groups may make your experience memorable, but I wonder to what expense it alienates the audiences who may have an authentic connection to the event when you bring this connection to everyone. One really striking example that brings this point to mind is the Sarajevo War Hostel experience, an immersive experience that allows tourists to spend a night recreating the Bosnian War in the safety of knowing that tomorrow it will be over. While I avoided it during my travels a few years ago because I was afraid it was going to be a tourist trap, the hotel is actually run by a family of survivors who, in their words “share important messages about humanity and we think the best way to learn about anything is to experience it yourself, this is the core idea behind our hostel”. While that is their mission, by focusing solely on the tourist experience and making the experience as sensational as possible, by appealing to the tourist experience only rather than the local as well as the tourist, they exploit the stories and suffering of their community, and in some ways, I think corrupt the entire experience of empathy itself.

This brings me to the final question that this book (maybe unintentionally) made me probe: how do we build empathy without exploiting the suffering of those whose experiences become prosthetic? Or, as it applies to our work as museum professionals: creating prosthetic experiences to bring White people into the fold of empathy may make your institution memorable, but who is it really catering to, and what does it say about American culture and empathy in general that us White people need to have a prosthetic experience to build empathy? Landsberg’s whole theory that empathy results from a transferential space or prosthetic memory experience definitely plays out as true in museum experiences, but at what cost? The museum experiences I highlighted, that I have experienced (the Holocaust Museum and the lunch counter experience) were all truly memorable experiences that left me feeling changed as a person; yet how might they have affected someone (or even alienated) someone with a more direct link to the experience, who did not need headphones to experience racism? How might the intensity of the Holocaust Museum push away survivors of other genocides, who do not need a museum to understand genocide and therefore will alienate themselves from a community of survivors? I know that these experiences were catered to me (a White person with no firsthand experiences of these issues) and they were powerful and built empathy, but what do we sacrifice when we build a museum exhibit to cater to white people?

These are questions I hope to address when I eventually make it into a PhD program or address throughout this blog. I look forward to everyone else’s thoughts on some of the issues this book brought up for me.

Next week, I will read one of Landsberg’s more contemporary works (from 2016). As I critiqued this book, part of me wondered if my critique of this book had something to do with the time period it was published in; I think the field of history, museum studies and cultural studies was way less aware in 2004 how white supremacy had snuck into the field and how implicit biases or implicit white-centeredness could make it’s way into our works. I’m curious in her more recent works to see if Lansberg’s writing has shifted focuses.

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