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Interrogating the Sacred: Holocaust Objects and their Care

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum textile conservator carefully handles a concentration camp uniform, March 2013. —United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Interrogating the Sacred: Holocaust Objects and Their Care

July 25-August 5, 2022 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is pleased to announce the call for applications for a special workshop “Interrogating the Sacred: Holocaust Objects and their Care.” 

Ever since vast piles of victims’ shoes were discovered upon liberation, the world has come to know something about the Holocaust through the artifacts left in its wake, from bodily remains to cherished possessions, from religious objects to instruments of persecution, torture, and murder. This workshop will consider the ways that some Holocaust objects are imbued with “sacredness” by survivors, Museum professionals, scholars, or the public—on account of their biographies and provenance, through rituals of tender care, by way of proximity to the events they witnessed, and in terms of what these objects meant and mean to those who encountered them or to whom they once belonged.

This workshop will explore questions of what makes an object “sacred” and what it means to care for such objects. What are the distinctions between objects that are sacred, holy, or numinous from those that are profane or quotidian and who decides? Does the dichotomy of sacred/profane offer a useful framework in which to conduct our work? What about sacrality’s inverse: desecrated, evil, haunted, or cursed? Moreover, how does trauma or an object’s proximity to violence alter its ontology? Can objects become sanctified through trauma and violence? How do academics, institutions, museums, libraries, and others differ in their understanding of what objects in their collections are considered sacred and how they care for them?

Drawing on the fields of religious studies, material culture, and collections management, this workshop aims to bring a critical and multifocal lens to the discourse surrounding the sacrality of objects and notions of sacred space. While the workshop will focus on Holocaust objects, the workshop’s themes, approaches, and methods are helpful for academics and professionals who engage with precious objects (loosely defined) across geographic regions and time periods. 

Participants will engage the following questions throughout the workshop:

  • How do we understand the meaning of “sacred,” “holy,” or the “numinous” in a material context? How can we create a shared vocabulary around such terms? 

  • How do curation, conservation, and holding imbue otherwise inanimate objects with new life? 

  • What ethical and practical issues do museums consider when conserving, storing, and displaying sacred objects, particularly regarding objects’ cultural and religious contexts?

  • How can these considerations of museum professionals be used to deepen museum visitors’ understanding of the Holocaust and other difficult histories? And how do these discussions mark a material turn in scholarship around such legacies?

Workshop Leaders: 

The workshop will be co-led by Dr. Laura Levitt, Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, and Gender at Temple University, and member of the USHMM’s Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, and Dr. Oren Stier, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Holocaust & Genocide Studies Program at Florida International University. 


Interrogating the Sacred: Holocaust Objects and Their Care will take place over ten days from July 25 to August 5, 2022, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation, and Research Center in Washington, DC. Participants will present individual research projects, participate in group discussions and site visits to various cultural institutions in Washington, DC, as well engage USHMM staff, including Dr. Robert M. Ehrenreich, Director of National Academic Programs in the Museum’s Mandel Center, and Jane E. Klinger, Museum Curator and Senior Research Conservator in the Museum’s David M. Rubenstein National Institute for Holocaust Documentation. 


We welcome applications from academics in the fields of religious studies, material culture, material religion, and museum professionals such as conservators, curators, collections managers, and archivists. Academics working in other disciplines, including history, archaeology, and anthropology, who are engaged in questions of sacrality and materiality are also welcome to apply. Professionals based in institutions outside North America will be considered if they meet the criteria above. For non-local participants, the Mandel Center will defray the cost of travel and lodging. 

Admission will be determined without regard to race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or reprisal. The Museum also prohibits any form of workplace discrimination or harassment.

Application Materials:

Applications must include: (1) a short curriculum vitae (1-2 pages) and (2) a short research abstract describing a specific object or the types of sacred objects or directional approach to the ethics/care of objects you wish to explore in the workshop (250-500 words). Please include a short list of bibliographic materials or collections resources that are relevant for your work on these topics. Learn more about the Museum’s collections and search our collections catalog.

Applications must be received in electronic form no later than Friday, March 25, 2022. For questions regarding the application process, contact Julia Liden, Program Coordinator, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust,

COVID-19 Contingency Plans:

This workshop is designed to take place in-person to provide participants access to USHMM’s holdings. While we are hopeful that the workshop will occur in the summer of 2022, we also want to ensure the safety of our participants, organizers, and speakers. If we are unable to gather in person in July 2022, we will reschedule the workshop for the summer of 2023. 

​​This seminar is made possible by the Hoffberger Family Fund and by Joseph A. and Janeal Cannon and Family.