State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda

Contemporary museum educators and curators are often faced with the challenge of delineated patron expectations.   In the audience’s eyes, natural history museums equal dinosaurs; art museums equal paintings; and memorials equal monuments.  Despite these expectations, some successful exhibitions find common ground between disciplines, often through strategic collaborations.  One such partnership currently exists between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC and Chicago’s museum of natural history, the Field Museum.  The exhibition, State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda showed at USHMM in D.C. from 2009 to 2012, before making the move to the Field in November 2013.  Chicago marks the first stop on a decade-long traveling schedule for the exhibition, which is seamlessly designed to adapt to mounting in history museums, art museums and even libraries around the country.

47470-x700 VINNITSA Nazi antisemitic propaganda frequently linked Jews to the fears of their German and foreign audiences. This poster, displayed in the German-occupied Soviet Union to foment both anti-Soviet and antisemitic fervor, uses the stereotype of the bloodthirsty “Jewish Bolshevik commissar” to associate “the Jew” with the murder of more than 9,000 Soviet citizens in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, an atrocity committed by Stalin’s secret police in 1937–38. German forces uncovered the massacre in May 1943. Unknown artist, 1943.–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC

I recently spoke with JoAnna Wasserman, Education Initiatives Manager at USHMM, on the development of the State of Deception show, and the challenges of sending it on the road. State of Deception features rarely seen artifacts and posters from the Nazi Party’s well-strategized propaganda campaign. In Washington, the exhibition hosted more than 500,000 visitors a year, most of them in the March through June school travel season. The museum developed a number of savvy educational tools to accompany the show and reach the high volume of student visitors.  In order to evoke the immediate impact of the propaganda posters on display, exhibition designers created English translations with matching images, graphic layout and font.  Wasserman notes that these English-language mini-posters, displayed next to the German originals, are a crucial educational device. “If you want audiences to critically analyze, they need a visceral reaction,” she explains. Rather than reading a translation within an accompanying label, these posters allow audiences an unmediated encounter with the emotional force of the messages on display.

The exhibition was also the recipient of a significant grant for mobile learning.  As a result, the show offers a unique texting tour, Mind Over Media.  Wasserman describes, with pleasure, the experience of working with Holocaust survivor Margit Meissner to create a first-person guided text experience.  Student visitors encounter critical thinking questions throughout the show, and are invited to text Meissner their answers.  In return, they receive a variety of response messages directly from the survivor.  It is significant that the texts are not additional didactic material; instead, the adaptive technology provides students with a personalized and emotional encounter.  “It’s such a media heavy show, already,” notes Wasserman, “We didn’t want to add anything more. Our goal is to filter and focus, to get them to the core ideas and themes of the show.”  She points out that Mind Over Media allows students the opportunity to practice their own critical media literacy – a central theme of the show itself. The museum reports that those students who participate in the texting tour spend four times longer in the exhibition. Both the mini-posters and text tour will travel with the exhibition as it moves to venues across the nation.

Another educational initiative that will accompany the show is a leadership summit, “What You Do Matters: A Summit on Propaganda, Hate Speech and Civic Engagement.” The summit invites applications from student leaders and uses the exhibition as a starting point to inspire ways to combat hate on college campuses.

his July 1932 election poster shows the German worker, enlightened through National Socialism, towering over his opponents. It reads This July 1932 election poster shows the German worker, enlightened through National Socialism, towering over his opponents. It reads "We Workers Have Awakened. We're Voting National Socialist." –US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Wasserman reports that the summit in DC proved an effective way to bring the message of the exhibition into a contemporary context, and she is looking forward to continuing the conversation with student leaders in Chicago and in future exhibition locations. “What You Do Matters” is just one example of how USHMM is making thoughtful community connections at each venue. Prior to the tour, the museum undertook an extensive environmental scan to look at the communities where the exhibition is booked.  Wasserman explains that the exhibition is designed to be flexible, with artifacts, educational initiatives and AV that can be adjusted according to the physical limitations of the space, the audience demographics, and the interests of the community.  She is excited for the ways in which new venues draw out different aspects of the multifaceted show.  In Chicago, a round table seminar was held for Chicago-based media educators and the exhibition was used in a number of corresponding media literacy events.   In Phoenix, the show’s next location, a partnership has been forged with the Cronkite School of Journalism, and civic engagement will be a clear focus.   In keeping with this diversity, Wasserman conjectures that art museums might focus more on the aesthetics of the propaganda images.

Despite such well-developed initiatives, Wasserman acknowledges that there is an educational challenge to moving the show to a non-memorial venue like the Field.  “Visitors to the Holocaust Memorial Museum are mentally prepared to engage with the difficult topic of the Holocaust.  At a natural history museum, many of the visitors will simply happen upon the exhibition.”  It is her hope that the educational programs accompanying the show will guide and translate, helping visitors connect to the compelling but complex issue of propaganda. Though the Field Museum is a very different museum than USHMM, Wasserman says the institutions worked together to articulate and capitalize on shared areas of their missions.  The Field, for its part, has expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to expand and diversify its audience with this show.  Wasserman emphasizes that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, though DC based, is truly the nation’s museum.  Its national exhibition partnerships allow audiences to encounter the messages of the Holocaust in their own communities.   It’s Wasserman’s hope that the varied venues and educational framing of State of Deception will actually serve to foster more thoughtful connections around the show.  “We’d like to take the conversation beyond history,” she notes. “Our underlying goal is to reinforce the importance of our responsibilities as citizens.”

Concluding in Chicago on February 2, 2014, State of Deception will next show at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, Arizona from February 14 through June 1, 2014.