Students on school trips to a Holocaust museum outside Detroit would stand riveted at one stark display: a Nazi officer’s black uniform with a red swastika armband, guns and a whip.
Some couldn’t resist snapping selfies.
Now, however, the exhibit, at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., has been redone as part of a major redesign. The showcase with the uniform is still there, but the view of those artifacts is partially blocked by photographs of German soldiers lounging at ease or leading Jews to mass shooting sites.
“I don’t want them to see this uniform without facing the truth of these people who wore these uniforms,” said Mark Mulder, the museum’s curator and a scholar of what is called atrocity imagery.
In the same way, the museum has rearranged a pile of captured Nazi banners to obscure the swastikas. And gone altogether is a giant blowup of Hitler where some visitors were caught on security cameras giving the Nazi salute.
As the world marks another Holocaust Remembrance Day on Saturday, commemorating the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, some museum curators are reimagining how to present the grim lessons of Nazi genocide while grappling with how younger generations with little connection to those cataclysmic events behave in settings meant to memorialize immense suffering.
Recent controversies have made headlines. After visitors posted irreverent selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, one offended critic, the Israeli-German comedian Shahak Shapira, reposted 12 of them as Yolocaust, for “you only live once,” inserting backgrounds of dead bodies.
Several years ago, officials for the museum at Auschwitz, the former death camp, became concerned that visitors were taking selfies of themselves balancing like gymnasts on the train tracks that had brought rail cars filled with Jews to the camp. The museum posted a message on social media in response.
“When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed,” the post said. “Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.”
Yet the selfie, and other images on social media, are hardly about to disappear, and some experts suggest that such photos, taken respectfully, do much to connect a visitor to the experience of confronting such a harrowing history of loss.
In 2019 the journal Holocaust Studies published an article, “Instagram and Auschwitz,” by two British media academicians, Dr. Gemma Commane and Rebekah Potton, who argued that young people’s online engagements with sites of trauma open “important avenues for debates on Holocaust remembrance, but also a space where images continue to generate visibility of the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Social media, they added, “can even give young people a voice and place in debates, which they may feel they cannot be part of in more formal contexts.”
The Zekelman Holocaust Center invites visitors on its website to take images while touring the museum and post them on social media. But the museum — whose building is meant to evoke the architecture of a death camp — has tried in a sweeping $31 million redesign of its core exhibition to reflect fresh perspectives in an age of social media on how best to remember and understand wrenching historical events.
Nazi atrocities are hardly downplayed in the exhibition, which formally opens on Sunday, but images of slaughtered victims and, especially those of perpetrators, are presented more selectively, said Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, the museum’s chief executive.
“These are people with families, who played chess and made decisions to murder millions of Jews,” he said. But, he added, “we want to dedicate the floor space as much as possible to victims and survivors, to give them a voice and get them to tell their story.”
The museum, founded in 1981 and rebuilt in 2003, has assembled some 800 testimonials, 60 of them from Michigan-based survivors, who are featured in the new exhibition. One, Zita Weber, as a teenager arrived with her family at Auschwitz from Czechoslovakia in late summer 1944. A brother and their mother went to the gas chambers. She was put to work sorting valuables, an experience she recalls in a quotation projected onto the floor: “I was only a few yards away from the crematorium and the smell was something else.”
With a $6 million annual budget, the Michigan center draws some 60,000 people a year. Some 35,000 of the visitors are students, mostly eighth graders, who attend in accordance with a 2016 Michigan law to promote genocide education. More than 99 percent of visitors are not Jewish.
Reactions have sometimes taken educators aback. “There is a way young people interact with the world that I don’t fully understand,” said Mulder, 44, the curator, who wrote his 2014 master’s thesis in museology at the University of Washington in Seattle on the benefits and concerns of using atrocity imagery in museum exhibits. “They tend to be documenting the world with them in it,” he said. “My way is behind the camera.”
“What it kind of comes down to is how much agency are we willing to give our visitors and what does that agency allow them to do,” Mulder said.
It entails risk, he said, “but educational theory tells us if we give our visitors that agency, the ones who use it respectfully and engage honestly with our content will remember more and have a better relationship with the subject matter than if we said, ‘Stop taking photos! Look at me! Listen to me!’ It’s a very different approach.”
“We don’t necessarily exist to change the mind of a die-hard antisemite,” Mulder said. “We are here for people who come with an open mind, even the people who are not sure what to make of it yet.”
But, he said, “You don’t have to show eighth graders piles of dead bodies for them to know the murder of six million people was wrong.”
How to keep the primary focus on what it was like for the victims preoccupied planners, said Paul Williams of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading museum designer that also worked on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the new Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
Williams, who wrote the 2007 book, “Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities,” said he spent time studying the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in Manhattan, where it was decided after debate to reduce images of the 19 terrorists to stamp-size thumbnails.
In Michigan, avoiding the glorification of what he called “the aesthetics of fascism” was partially behind the removal of a 20-foot-high portrait of Hitler that had drawn some salutes.
The huge image had made Gabriella Burman, the museum’s marketing director, uneasy. Her grandmother, who survived Auschwitz but never discussed her ordeal, always covered her tattooed ID number with a Band-Aid, she recalled.
Burman said that even as a museum employee, she would avert her eyes when she passed the Hitler portrait. “I hated looking at his face,” she said.
Susan A. Crane, a professor of modern European history at the University of Arizona, has argued for repatriating Holocaust atrocity photographs to their countries of origin so as to avoid their “reduction to atrocious objects of banal attention.”
Some images, Mulder agreed, “get used so heavily that they become almost wallpaper.” But he said his own scholarship found such materials could be useful if properly presented.
The museum’s solution was to contextualize artifacts like the displayed Nazi uniform, which was once worn by a ranking leader in the Sicherheitsdienst, or security service.
Visitors are not banned from taking selfies in front of that showcase, but now it’s a bit different because of the presence of images of the people who were killed, Rabbi Mayerfeld said.
“When you look at the uniform,” he said, “you are also forced to see the photos.”