Posts Tagged ‘heritage’

Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

February 4th, 2015

Should Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved, and can it?

Chelsea Head

            Concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau played a large role in the Final Solution implemented by the Third Reich during World War II. Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in the south of Poland, and was built in the year 1940. With the end of the war in 1945, the Nazis tried to destroy everything that would link them to the horrors of the Second World War, including burning records and buildings in the camps. Despite their destruction, a large portion of the camp is left today, but with over 1 million visitors a year, there has been a considerable amount of damage and decay to the remaining structures[1]. The site has been maintained by the Polish Government as a museum and memorial since 1947, with large efforts to conserve and preserve the site[2].

One of the problems with Auschwitz is that it was never meant to last this long. Yes, the Nazi regime believed that the Third Reich would be long-lasting, but the concentration camps were never meant to last the supposed entire Nazi reign. Concentration camps were vital to the Nazis’ Final Solution and Hitler’s Aryan regime, but they were not built to last.  The type of materials that were used to build Auschwitz are difficult to conserve and preserve for future generations. With the amount of visitors each year, it is demanding to keep up with the amount of decay and deterioration throughout the site. The camp is a large and demanding conservation effort with, “The Auschwitz camp itself covers 50 acres and comprises 46 historical buildings, including two-story red brick barracks, a kitchen, a crematorium and several brick and concrete administration buildings. In addition, Birkenau, a satellite camp about two miles away, sprawls over more than 400 acres and has 30 low-slung brick barracks and 20 wooden structures, railroad tracks and the remains of four gas chambers and crematoria. In total [the staff] monitor 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two sites”.[3]

The amount of Holocaust and Auschwitz survivors is rapidly dwindling, which makes the preservation of the camp a priority of the museum, to preserve the history for younger generations who know nothing of the Holocaust. With the amount of work and money involved in the conservation of the camp, there have been some comments on whether Auschwitz should be left to deteriorate. Architect Eric Kahn believes that the camp should be memorialized in a way that doesn’t continue to rapidly deteriorate the camp, but still brings focus to the event and tragedy that occurred there.[4] By letting Birkenau disintegrate naturally, visitors will have to find new ways to tackle the topic of the Holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz without seeing the remains of the camp. But, many survivors believe that Auschwitz-Birkenau should continue to be preserved for future generations. Survivors faced many unthinkable horrors in Auschwitz, and the world needs to remember the camp and the tragedy.

The conservators at Auschwitz-Birkenau work on the many buildings and remains of the camp, as well as the substantial amount of objects in the site’s museum, such as shoes, suitcases, kitchenware, eyeglasses, clothing, art, human remains (hair, teeth, etc.), and records.[5] The conservation effort at Auschwitz is one of the largest in the world, with many conservators working to preserve the camp and artifacts. I believe that preserving the camp is the only viable option for the future of Holocaust memorialization. It will take a considerable amount of work, and money, but it is doable with the right type of people and conservation efforts. The memory of the Holocaust needs to be kept alive at Auschwitz-Birkenau for future generations.

[1]  Ryan E. Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz,” Jewish Journal. 30 January 2013. Accessed 19 January 2015. http://  

[2] Andrew Curry, “Can Auschwitz be Saved?” Smithsonian Magazine. Feb. 2010. Accessed 19 Jan. 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Smith, “Preserving Auschwitz”.

[5] “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed January 19, 2015.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rights of the Owner Versus Rights of the Public

February 4th, 2015

Rights of the Owner versus Rights of the Public

Stephanie Byrd

 The rights to own property is part of the American dream, but what if the property has a past that is ties with a historic person from the community, and a new owner wants to alter the property? Can the town try to preserve the legacy of the former owner, over the rights of the new owner? The issue becomes a topic of discussion over the “Pretty Penny” house from the late Helen Hayes. The public wanted the home to remain visibly the same from Helen Hayes’ time, but the new owner wanted to restore the home to the original architecture and add a privacy wall in the process. The new homeowner was within their rights to alter the home, as long as the proper paperwork was submitted, even if the alteration angered the residents. In the case of historic homes, can a balance of owner’s right and historic appearance and legacy of the property meet to accommodate all parties involved?

On the Hudson River in a small and beautiful town of Nyack, New York, stands the former home of Helen Hayes, a woman known as the “First Lady of American Theater” (Arader 2013). To the village of Nyack, or to those who knew her well, she was Helen or Mrs. MacArthur. Her home was shared with her husband Charles MacArthur who nicknamed the home “Pretty Penny” due to the joke he told that it cost a “pretty penny” to keep up (Geist nd). I have a unique history with this house, or at least my family does. The Hayes family and my mother’s family grew up together from the early 1930s to 1993, when Mrs. MacArthur passed away.

Celebrities living in Nyack are nothing new. The town is small with large expensive homes and is located an hour from New York City, making it a perfect fit to get away. However, the town’s ability to treat celebrities as normal people is what I remember as a child. My family would drive back to visit my Grandfather and I loved the homes that lined River Road and N. Broadway that had always caught my eye. My first look at Pretty Penny took my breath away, a large white house shaped like a wedding cake. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the home had a metal fence that allowed the residents and visitors of Nyack to see the home while driving by. The home was built in 1856 in the Italianate style with little history prior to the MacArthur’s purchasing of the home in the 1930s. After the MacArthur’s bought the home, improvements and changes were done, most notably the moving of the front door, which could be seen from N. Broadway. Much of the interior was changed, but the appeal is in the architecture and gardens that surround the home since it was the outside that passer-byers wanted.

After Helen’s death, the home was placed on the market and sold to Rosie O’Donnell. The front door was placed back to the original location and the interior brought back to the 1850s appearance with some modern touches. Sadly, the 8-foot brick wall (Cary 2014) was built around the home that angered the residents of Nyack. As “Pretty Penny” was her private property, she had the right to change the home and the land, as long as she had gone through the village council and gotten the permits. However, due to the historic nature and its ties to the MacArthur family, much of the village did not want the wall because it changed the town’s appearance. It was a balance of private property, historic preservation, town aesthetics, and the MacArthur family legacy that needs to be reconciled.

If the local government of Nyack wanted to “own” Pretty Penny for a museum, it most likely could under the Fifth Amendment ( While most people know the Fifth Amendment as protecting individuals from incrimination, other components relate to eminent domain and the ability of the government to take private property for public use. Since the home is still private property and the wall still stands some part of the village has had to come to terms that “Pretty Penny’s” wall is now part of her past, but not the past people want to remember. It is the MacArthur’s home that is remembered but even they made changes that the public considers historic not because it was original but because of who made the changes. In changing the front door back to the original and adding a wall, did Rosie O’Donnell add value in restoration or devalue it by finding the historic home beyond the brick wall?

As much as I would like to argue that the wall is unnecessary, if all legal paperwork was completed for the wall construction then Rosie O’Donnell is fully within her rights to add a wall and alter the home. The residents can voice their displeasure, which is within their rights, but Rosie was the owner at the time and can add, modify, and change the home per the permits. The right to keep the home ultimately comes down to city hall issue permits on historic homes and if the governing body approves the permits to change the home the local residents have no choice but to allow the changes to occur. It is possible that the homeowner of any historic property could take into account the feelings the community has towards the property but that is not something the owner must do. Reconstruction of historic homes can be a challenge to obtain materials and even records of the original work to restore it properly. Materials used today are not the same material quality or type from the original work. Building codes have changed, making permits requires ensures safety and compliance, with the exterior being visually similar but safer for the current owners. Owning a historic property with community ties comes with a special set of challenges between the owner rights, community options, and preservation law that a person should not enter into lightly when thinking of buying a historic home.




“Fifth Amendment.” Fifth Amendment.


“Graham Arader: A Great Story about My House in Nyack – Pretty Penny.” Graham Arader: A Great Story about My House in Nyack – Pretty Penny.


Geist, John F. Personal Interview. Nyack, New York.


Batson, Bill. 2012. “Nyack Sketch Log: Helen Hayes MacArthur.” Nyack News and Views.


Cary, Bill. 2014. “Pretty Penny: Helen Hayes’ Former Home Is on the Market Again.” Pretty Penny: Helen Hayes’ Former Home Is on the Market Again.


“Takings Clause.”


Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Public Outreach , , , , , , ,

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price


Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits




References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , ,

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

February 4th, 2013

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

Kate Clothier

Going to museums has always brought me happiness. After spending countless hours lost in their different exhibits I would come out feeling more connected to the past cultures and curious to learn about the different societies on display. This interest led me to become an avid history reader and museum patron. When I was older I was shocked to learn that there was one specific controversial issue surrounding museum exhibits internationally. The ethics of displaying human bodies. Should museums be able to put the deceased on display for the public and who has the rights to the bodies once they are discovered?

I was always torn on the answer to these questions. For me, the people on display spurred reverence and curiosity, for others the displays served as symbols of disrespect to our ancestral heritage. This division of thinking persists today and was even the subject of ethical debate at the 2010 conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)- Committee for Conservation conference. Large nationally recognized organizations are facing the ethics of displaying the deceased in attempt to find common ground but the debate rages on. There is no ‘cure all’ for the questions at hand.

It has been suggested that the direct descendants should get the finally say on whether the bodies should be on display, but what if there are no direct descendants? Who then has the right to decide? Where is the quest for information on the human past to stop and, would we dig up cemeteries for knowledge? To me, the best solution is to stick to the ethical guidelines created by organizations like the ICOM in reference to past societies and what they left behind (Brajer, I. 2010. “Human Remains in Museums.” International Council of Museums- Theory and History of Conservation Working Group, Accessed: Web. 21 Jan. 2013). These bodies can offer us insight to the past that would otherwise be unknown and can even spark interest the societies themselves, as was the case for me. I believe the bodies should be treated with upmost respect and if a direct link to a current society is found or known of, those people should get the final say in whether the body can be displayed or not. The ethics surrounding human remains being put on display is sure to persist for many years to come and museums will continue to be at the forefront of this debate.



Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies , , ,

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

January 30th, 2013

Past as Propaganda, Part One: Nazi Artifacts in Museums

Chelsea Freeland

             Christopher Caple briefly discusses the inclusion of Nazi war memorabilia in his book, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making.  He uses the notion as an example of the dangers of using the past as propaganda, asking if the artifacts “celebrate their views or remind of the dangers of a totalitarian regime” (20). 

             When I visited the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, I was struck by the images of Nazi propaganda throughout the World War II hall: not because I felt they didn’t belong there, but because I had never seen anything like them before.  As a war museum, rather than a history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches has less of responsibility to the overall history of Austria and Vienna, instead focusing on the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the two World Wars.  In this context, Nazi propaganda greatly explains how and why Austria came under German rule early in the conflict, making it an integral part of Austrian war history.

             What about other places in Europe, or even across the world?  Is it important to include Nazi propaganda in a museum of a country that did not experience the Holocaust, or does it detract valuable time and energy away from a more tragic chapter in world history?  Caple asks two questions in his book:

  1. Should they [Nazi artifacts] be collected and preserved as a record of the period and what happened at that time?
  2. Should they be displayed and brought to the attention of people? (2003: 20)

These are difficult questions, particularly for museums in Europe.  Coming from a background in history, I would argue that collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, regardless of their sensitive nature, is an important job of museums in general.  Whether or not they place those artifacts on display, is another question entirely.

            For countries in Europe, particularly those directly affected by Nazi occupation, these artifacts are a part of their country’s heritage.  They form an integral part of the story of World War II that many people forget, or choose to ignore, giving precedence instead to the tragedy of the Holocaust.  An interesting point to make is that Nazi artifacts and memorabilia are part of the story of the Holocaust as well. 

            For me, the jury is still out on what priority these artifacts should have in a museum.  Should museums withhold limited resources from these types of sensitive artifacts, simply because of their nature?  How do curators decide what percentage of their museum to use for these artifacts?   Are they less important to display because they represent a chapter in history the world would like to forget?  Genocide memorials and exhibits across the world speak to this last question.

            As a world traveler, I remember being shocked that the first, and last, place I saw that much Nazi memorabilia was in Austria.  There were posters, plaques, journals, clothing, and pamphlets: all painstakingly preserved to show part of the story.  I will tell you that they made a huge impact on how I viewed the German conquest of Austria and the subsequent events of World War II.  I believe that is the goal of the museum: to expose the public to things they have never seen or thought about before, and in doing so, give them a broader historical experience.


Caple, C, 2003, Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.


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