The photo donation (US Holocaust Memorial Museum,Washington, DC, 1998)
In the summer of 1998, our parents/in-laws, Lotte and Carl Hirsch, visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) photo archive where they had been invited to donate some of their family pictures from Czernowitz, the East European city where they were born, grew up, and survived the Holocaust. The photos were intended to enhance the museum's small archival collection of images from that city and the Bukowina province of which it had once been the capital (fig. 7.1). Selected pictures would be catalogued by date, place, and type, and labeled with additional information provided by the donors. Some of the photos, Carl and Lotte were told, might be chosen for display on the museum's website.
It has been the goal of the museum's photo curators to document and display Jewish life in Europe broadly, before, during, and after the Holocaust, balancing the archive of atrocity photos that dominate the museum's permanent exhibition. Over the course of years, the museum archive has thus acquired many photographs through private donations as well as from images scanned from books and collected holdings in other institutions. In Washington, we observed Carl and Lotte's donation, and the oral history interview that accompanied it, with close interest because we wished to gain some sense of how such a photographic archive is constructed, and of the assumptions and presuppositions that shape its development. Since both of us viewed the Washington DC museum as a site where an ‘official story’ of the Holocaust (and of the Jewish life that was destroyed by it) was displayed for public consumption and archived for scholarly study, we wanted to learn more about how that story takes form, and about the role that visual images play in shaping it. According to what questions and suppositions are images selected for the archive – both by individual donors and by the archivists who receive, catalogue, and display them – and what role do private, family photos play in the archive's constitution?
Lotte and Carl approached the donation with divergent interests and investments. Carl, an engineer by profession, was systematic.