Phenomenological Architecture & Memory Institutions: Evoking the Past.

Forgetfulness prolongs the exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption – Ba’al Shem Tov

In the 19th century museums and monuments were political communication meant to define national identity by creating an inspiring narrative.  Historically museums were used  to generate and reinforce social practices; perpetuating hegemonic narratives of national superiority.  As institutions they reflect the culture of the nations that erected them.  Despite the authority of museums, they are not monolithic, as even these complex institutions evolve over time to reflect changes in social and political discourse.

In the past two decades there have been dramatic shifts in global remembrance culture.  Where there was once an emphasis on historical knowledge, the value of emotional connections to the past is rapidly becoming the dominant focus of memory institutions. The belief that the atrocities of the past can be avoided by merely knowing about them has shifted to the understanding that a degree of empathy must be formed to ensure future moral responsibility.

English: The Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by...

1.0 The Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

When contemplating how our remembrance culture has evolved, it is vital to consider the contributions of mass media to the production of memory.  Mass technologies such as photography have immense power in shaping collective memory and allowing for social cohesion that transcends boundaries- allowing memory to be preserved and archived.

Yet at the same time there is a potential harm in allowing complete autonomy of technological memory.  Images are quickly separated from their context and given iconic status. While remembrance might become easier to consume, the subtle complexities of these historical events become erased, turning images into objects of remembrance rather than a medium to inspire critical reflection and remembrance.

1.0 Diagonal window markings on the facade of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

1.1 Diagonal windows scar the facade, visually communicating the social and political tensions.

As a result of these shifts in our cultural perceptions, museums as institutions have been forced to reflection on how the authority of the institution has shaped past and future discourse, as well as the future role and function of museums as a means of memory preservation.  This has lead to a new type of museum widely referred to as memory museums.  Where museums were once situated within political memory, this new brand of memory container attempts to be a forum for a collective and communicative memory.

A key feature of these museums is their attempt to engage visitors with the past to create an empathetic connection- often even recreating experiences to develop a more personal and immediate means of connecting.  For this new evolution of museums the intent is to blur the lines between history and memory.   The narrative they seek to tell often utilizes visual and tactile stimuli, such as photographs and audiovisual displays, to provide a sensory experience rather than just an intellectual one.

1.1 A 24 meter high void, both angled and claustrophobic, serves as a place of quiet reflection.

1.2 A 24 meter high void (Tower of Holocaust), both angled and claustrophobic, is devoid of stimuli to serve as a place of contemplation.

One memory museum in particular that had a vast number of political, social, and cultural matters to consider when creating the narrative of the exhibition is the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  The winning design by architect Daniel Libeskind aimed to create a sympathetic connection to the past, but at the same time deviates from other memorial museums in that it denies the ability to have a passive, self-indulgent, or cathartic experience.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is a phenomenological structure that creates an environment to be interpreted and experienced. The zig-zag structure composed of slanted halls, diagonal windows slashed into the facade, claustrophobic spaces, voids and piercing lines is mean to disorient the visitor.  While this is a metaphor meant to connect the visitors to the experience of persecuted Jews, this design’s true intent is to undermine the history of ritualistic responses by creating an emotional and visceral engagement with history.

1.3 The Gardens of Exile is a cobble-stone sloped square with titled columns containing trees connected by an underground hallway (Axis of Exile)

Libeskind was able to push the limits of his medium’s technology as well as the assumptions surrounding museums as social institutions. When a visitor moves through the exhibition space of a memory museum, they are being provided with the opportunity to have a spatial and temporal experience.  In addition to providing texts, photographs, and audio or visual media, the space itself communicates a historical interpretation.

With each day our abilities to erase the spatial and temporal boundaries between us increases.  While there are alternative means of memory preservation, it is important that social institutions evolve to communicate the growing intricacies and various cultural perceptions of our global world.  It is possible that this vein of phenomenological architecture is the future of these institutions, as it allows for individual interpretation and critical self-reflection rather than the perpetuation of a single narrative.



Arnold-de Simine, S. (2012). Memory museum and museum text: Intermediality in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Theory, Culture & Society, 29(1), 14-35. doi:10.1177/0263276411423034

Hansen‐Glucklich, J. (2010). Evoking the sacred: Visual holocaust narratives in national museums. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 9(2), 209-232. doi:10.1080/14725886.2010.486548

Photo Credit:

1.0 Photo by Wikipedia

1.1 Photo by Wojtek Gurak

1.2 Photo by Goodnight London

1.3 Photo by Wojtek Gurak



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