Audience Reception: Resonance, Wonder, Memory, and #Selfies

This week in class we’re talking about audience reception. How do various members of the viewing public take in, interpret, view, see, and receive the images and information museums provide? How are we enculturated and socialized to view museum objects, and how, through in-the-moment interactions, do we actually end up experiencing them?

Heath and Von Lehn emphasized the importance of social interactions in and around exhibits and how viewers shape each others views and experiences of the objects on display.1 This might be extended to suggest that how people comport themselves in exhibit spaces is both an expression of peoples viewed of appropriate behavior, and a means by which this socially and culturally appropriate behavior is modeled and enforced.

The level of voices talking, whether in hushed whispers, or loud declaiming statements, sets a tone and level of expectation for others entering that space.  Museums may post signs asking for quiet, or asking people not to touch, and while such rules might be enforced by museum personnel, some museum-goers will also instruct and attempt to enforce such rules on the others with them, or on others in that shared space.

To add to this, we can add the ingredients that Greenblatt described as resonance and wonder.  “By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”2

To experience wonder, according to Greenblatt, it helps to strip away everything else. To take away the placards describing context, or explaining the technique or style of the artist, to take away the historical and social context, and view an aesthetically pleasing and valuable work as just that, aesthetically pleasing.  This mode of viewing is one, most often associated with art museums, that postulates a universal aesthetic sensibility that all humans share.

However, it is exactly this proposition, that there exists some deep and fundamental, (and structural in the Levi-Straussian sense) shared human aesthetic, and a capability for discerning judgement that some people naturally possess that led Bourdieu to write Distinction,3 an entire book dedicated to debunking this belief, and instead arguing that aesthetic tastes are socially and culturally defined, and that some members of society have greater power and sway in defining these modes and values of aesthetic appreciation.  Bourdieu elaborated that it is specifically the members of the ‘cultural nobility’ or those with the greatest cultural capital, measured in terms of the level of education achieved, as well as to some extent social and economic class, that define what qualifies as taste and aesthetic judgement.

But in the realm of the memorial, in museums and spaces designed to memorialize the dead, and the historical circumstances that surrounded their death, there are battles over what forms of expression, taste, and appreciation are appropriate and correct. Two examples have been in the news lately that spring to mind. One is the construction, contents, and representations of the 9/11 Museum (and its gift shop and cafe), and the other is the phenomenon of taking selfies around the Ground Zero site and museum, and also in concentration camps like Auschwitz.

Who are the arbiters of taste when the judgements in question fall into the realm of moral and social propriety?

Via: The Daily Mail

Via: The Daily Mail

To return to the ideas of resonance and wonder, the 9/11 Museum, (and other memorial museums) are designed around the idea of resonance. They are designed with the idea that many of the visitors will already have a personal connection to the tragedy.  They are also designed to amplify that resonance, to bring into focus the events of that day, and the lives affected, to bring into a shared sense of memory, even those who do not themselves remember.

In this way the 9/11 Museum shares much in common with the Holocaust Museum, as well as museums and sites in Europe commemorating the Jewish community, and the deaths of millions of Jews (and others) at the hands of the Nazis in WWII. As with many holocaust memorials, the mantra is “never forget”, a sense that these historical events have to be preserved in our shared memories, transmitted to younger generations, so that the atrocities will never be repeated.

How can that resonance be created? How can we ensure that the resonance extends to younger generations who don’t have as direct a personal connection to the people and events in question?

It is here that I want to rejoin the ideas of Heath and vom Lehn, Bourdieu with the ideas of emotional and personal resonance with the historical introduced by Greenblatt.

Recently, the phenomenon of teenagers taking selfies at Auschwitz has exploded in the media and on social networks, and with more attention drawn by an article in the New Yorker.  One young woman, who tweeted a smiling picture of herself at Auschwitz, received death threats, after her tweets went viral. Even so, in contextualizing her own actions, she says that she took the picture to commemorate her own visit to the site, on the one year anniversary of her father’s death. But this one teenager isn’t the only one doing it, and it’s not just at Auschwitz or Dachau. This article in the Daily Mail points out that the phenomena includes selfies taken at Ground Zero, and in and around the 9/11 Museum.

In an article in the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey brings to bear some of the literature analyzing the phenomenon of selfies, suggesting that the selfie is the contemporary expression of “I was there”. But she goes on to say:

“That doesn’t make it “okay,” to borrow an un-nuanced, Web-ready phrase. In truth, it’s hard to think of anything less sensitive, less appropriate or less self-aware than a “selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp” — smiley — as if the suffering of millions of people was somehow subsumed by Breanna’s own personal narrative. She was there, sure, but so were tens of thousands of others, and her willful minimization of that fact is, frankly, pretty gross.” – Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, July 22, 2014

But while Ruth Margalit in the New Yorker asks the question: Should Auschwitz Be a Site for Selfies?, an op-ed piece by Leonard Pitts, Jr., (columnist for The Miami Herald), is titled “Selfies in Auschwitz — and why it’s wrong“. For Pitts, perhaps sadly, or revealingly, his opinion is framed in terms of a grumbling *kids these days* kind of statement.

“But this whole thing of mugging for cameras in inappropriate places feels viscerally … wrong. It suggests a cluelessness, a shallowness, and an incapacity for reverence that have come to feel like the signature of these times. It suggests a lack of home training and a surplus of narcissism that have come to feel ubiquitous. For all her professed love of World War II history, Breanna Mitchell bespeaks a fundamental lack of respect for, and comprehension of, that history when she poses at Auschwitz — death place for nearly 1.1 million human beings — like she thinks she’s at Epcot.” — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on, July 27, 2014

So to return to Heath and vom Lehn, how are social interactions, and the body language, and gesture of some visitors to memorial sites conditioning others?  Does one person taking a selfie at Auschwitz make it seem ok to others? Is that how this started? And conversely, how many attempted selfies in front of gas chambers have been shamed or cajoled into not taking that selfie, or deleting it? How many social interactions, in the moment and in the place, have attempted to push back against this mode of interaction with the place?

Further, to return to Bourdieu, who in society are the arbiters of taste, or propriety, when it comes to how we perceive and interact with memorials to the dead, and the history that surrounds them?  Does cultural capital matter? Or is it another sort of capital, the moral authority of personal connection to that tragedy?  Many of the news articles would seem to defer to the families of the victims of 9/11, including the families of working class firefighters and rescue workers, who do not fit neatly into Bourdieu’s schema of taste.

It is a debate that is raging in our society at the moment, a standoff between of selfie-takers on the one hand, who don’t see the harm, and families of the dead, both Holocaust and 9/11, who are profoundly disturbed by the lack of respect, on the other. To them the selfie is the ultimate expression of disrespect, which they view as a selfish or narcissistic act that takes away from the memory and commemoration of the dead, to instead commemorate oneself.

In order for resonance to occur, Greenblatt points out, we should not focus exclusively on the objects themselves, (nor on ourselves – though he doesn’t say this explicitly), but on the connection we feel between ourselves and the objects.

“The resonance depends not upon visual stimulation but upon a felt intensity of names, and behind the names, as the very term resonance suggests, of voices: the voices of those who chanted, studied, muttered their prayers, wept, and then were forever silenced.” – Stephen Greenblatt4


1. Christian Heath and Dirk vom Lehn, “Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the ‘Spectator’ in Museums and Galleries,” Theory, Culture & Society 21 (2004): 43-65.  
2. Stephen Greenblatt,  “Resonance and Wonder” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991): 42.
3. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge, 1984, originally published as La Distinction. Critique social du jugement (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979). 
4. Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” 47.


3 thoughts on “Audience Reception: Resonance, Wonder, Memory, and #Selfies

  1. This posts brings a lot into my mind. The first subject is about the #selfie. I must say I think there is a time a place for a selfie. The girl who is pictured at Auschwitz couldn’t have made her selfie more disturbing. First off the black and white effect makes the picture immediately seem creepy and very dark, although I must say she did capture the essence of a concentration camp with that effect. Not only does the effect make this look back, but the way she is smiling makes her seem like she is plotting to take over the world, no that wasn’t suppose to be a Hitler pun. Her smile looks almost evil especially considering the barbed wire in the background and the fact that you can’t completely see her face. Who knows maybe this girl is into photography and thought it was a neat picture, I would think that if this selfie wasn’t taken in the location it is. This leads me into your point about resonance. So much of what happened Auschwitz has resonated with us that we feel like we need to carry ourselves with the utmost respect at this location. I saw an Oprah documentary in a high school English class about a man who survived Auschwitz and it wasn’t a place I would honestly want to go to and smile at because of all of the horrific stories that this man told. I remember a few people even crying during this film because of the story that were posed. Maybe we are being to harsh on this girl for wanting to capture her experience or maybe she is in the wrong for taking this smiling, creepy, selfie; it all just depends how the venue resonates in your mind.


  2. I personally don’t understand the appeal of selfies. Especially when it comes the examples provided above; the 9/11 Memorial Museum and The Auschwitz Death camp. It is not so much that she took a picture of herself at the site but her expression. Why would you smile? The point of visiting these sites of tragedy are to try to understand and remember the horrors and atrocities that took place to ensure that they never happen again. If you are going to take a picture wouldn’t you want it to reflect the effect the experience had on you? And taking a picture of yourself smiling is to me not only disrespectful but also defeats the purpose of the visit.


  3. I think that the point made in class discussion that selfies, especially in this context, are just the newest way of saying that “I was there” is very true. Anyone could be behind the camera taking a picture, but with a selfie, it serves to directly place the person at a site. There seems to be currently (I don’t know how long this has been a phenomenon or even if it is particularly widespread outside of my experience) a trend of people visiting sites solely for this reason, to check it off of some list of places that they have visited, less than some desire to actually visit and experience the place and understand it on a deeper level. It is similar to the Mona Lisa Effect of people visiting the Louvre specifically to take a picture with the Mona Lisa because of the disproportionate importance placed by western culture of seeing it and being there, aside from all else at the Louvre. This attitude seems to me to be embodied in these insensitive selfies taken at Auschwitz and other similar sites where there is a greater emphasis by the visitor of saying they were there, than any actual desire to experience the site.


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