Whose Artifact Is It Anyway?

Jane Klinger, chief conservator,
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has in its collection artifacts that were created for everyday use by everyday people. In the absence of direct testimony from victims, these objects have become the memory of their lives, and hold meaning far beyond their original use as simply a shoe or a dress.

Tension arises when the struggle between emotional content and physical protection take center stage. The conservator acts as an advocate for the needs of the artifact—battling time and the elements to maintain the object, while the curator seeks to put the artifact to use, to convey its histories and emotions to the public.

But with digital technology, often a middle ground can be found, as was the case with the burnt diary of a young woman named Debora. The museum recognized that this was a compelling object with a riveting text, but the damage it sustained might prevent it from reaching the audience it deserved. Instead, digital images, some enhanced to reveal the text, were used in a traveling exhibit. This is an excellent example of how an artifact can be used virtually–that is safely–yet still be a highly effective tool in telling a story.