State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Hannah Hamill

Published on February 15, 2010 , Modified on June 13, 2010

  • Description:

    It’s been a while since my last visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), so I decided to come back for a visit to their year-old temporary exhibition “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” This exhibition balances historic objects and technology in a tactful and engaging way by using technology to enhance the exhibition’s themes rather than compete with them for attention.

    My visit actually began at home when I looked up the exhibition on the USHMM website. There I was able to familiarize myself with the exhibition material and supplemental material, but it was mostly useful to know that I could come home and review the themes of the exhibition at my leisure.

    At the museum, as I approached the exhibition space, I was confronted by what appeared to be a hypnotist’s trick: stacks of rings were pulsing out from the center of a circle with words and phrases about the exhibition written upon them. I eventually put two and two together and figured out that it was a radio signal: a unifying design element throughout the exhibition that tied in audio elements such as radio broadcasts and music. When I stepped into the space, a video of a timeline with newsreel footage and newspaper headlines was playing. (I didn’t stay too long: a security guard was watching me from the corner right next to the screen and it made me feel awkward.) Similar videos played throughout the exhibition, which was set up in chronological order from 1919 to the present, so I was able to linger away from the watchful eye of a bored security guard.

    Other technological elements in the exhibition included projected images on a screen with music and speeches playing, an audio-visual station with video interviews of German Jews, a touchscreen station with an interactive timeline illustrating the events leading up to the devastating Kristallnacht, and a small theater playing segments of the controversial films “Jud Süss” and “Der ewige Jude” (with explanatory narration). These elements accompanied objects such as propaganda posters, a phonograph, an old radio, and interesting Messianic depictions of Hitler in painting and in sculpture.

    I was able to test out most of the technology myself, but I often had to wait in line to use the touchscreen interactives. Both children and adults were engaging with the technology and appeared to know how to use the features without much trouble. One interactive shared pictures and information about propaganda techniques and offered a simple quiz at the end that attracted younger visitors. Another touchscreen interactive was a wall-sized map of Berlin with important locations marked by icons that I could touch for more information on historic events and people. This particular interactive had a longer wait than the others because the knowledge gained by the user sparked conversation with other visitors nearby.

    I definitely felt the presence of technology in the exhibition, but the gadgets did not overpower the serious themes and images present. The design of the exhibition, inspired by alleys and streets and enhanced by voice and music, transported me to war-torn Europe. Videos of a passionate Hitler giving speeches gave a voice to the vitriolic messages that I had seen in print. At the end of the exhibition, I lingered with some visitors (young and old) to watch newsreels from the end of the war, and a video of General Eisenhower and local villagers visiting the concentration camps had a very tangible effect on the mood in the room. Even though we had all seen the exhibition’s propaganda posters with strong language and offensive illustrations, the video tied together everything that we had just learned and made the video viewing experience a lot more meaningful and emotional.

    I was impressed that the exhibition was well-maintained and all of the interactives were in working order. There were a few logistical problems with placing of the elements (e.g., the audio-visual station didn’t isolate sound all that well, and it was right next to the musical photo montage; the theater had limited seating), but I could still tell that the curatorial staff thoughtfully made considerations for the audience (e.g., there were three screens playing interviews in the audio-visual station so that visitors wouldn’t have to wait in line; there were captions on the films; the theater was part of the exhibition instead of set apart from it). Overall, I was very pleased with my experience and hope that the exhibition enjoys continued success.

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