museums: MFAH and the Holocaust Museum

Over the winter break I traveled home to Texas, and had a wonderful time with all the friends, restaurants, events… and a couple of great museum visits. Just some quick notes here.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston (photo credit)

With an old friend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the new Norman Rockwell exhibit there. I learned a lot about him. We all know Rockwell in some way – his better-known images are in the fiber of American culture. But (of course) there’s more story there than I knew. For instance, I hadn’t realized that after forty-some years, he left the Saturday Evening Post at least in part for moral reasons: they forbid portrayals of Black Americans outside of service roles. It was the 1960s, and he needed to depict what was happening in the real world, including the Civil Rights Movement. Look published his work in that later era, including “The Problem We All Live With” (you know this one, if not by name: it features Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans, flanked by U.S. Marshals and backgrounded by ugly graffiti and a thrown tomato). I saw some striking paintings from that later career, including one of Lincoln, and several portrayals of multiculturalism and interracial camaraderie.

In the earlier Post era, especially, Rockwell is accused of being overly optimistic, of depicting an America that is homey and happy and quaint. (He’s even inspired an eponym.) I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Optimistic? Yes. But I think he was always portraying real life, even if his images had a hopeful slant to them. There is the element of the everyday, of skinned knees and half-peeled potatoes, that feels more authentic than sentimental, not that there’s an absence of the latter. Also, he likes strong girls and women, which I appreciate (think “Outside the Principal’s Office,” which I’m very sorry was not a part of this exhibit). The attention to detail and to the everyday and the modest is what seems to me to have carried him into the civil rights subjects of his later work.

In telling my father about the Willie Gillis series, he shared that my great-uncle (my father’s namesake), who died in WWII, had sent home a series of his own cartoons of military life. I was thrilled to get to see some of these that he scanned over for me, and he gave permission for me to share one here. Not every soldier was a Norman Rockwell, but many of them recorded their lives in the same way, including one of my own family that I never got to meet.

my great-uncle’s wartime art

Rockwell’s four paintings portraying the Four Freedoms were present in several iterations, and I got to read about how they each came to be; they even have the jacket that was used for the “Freedom of Speech” painting (worn by his model). At the end of the exhibit, a small room was filled with photographs taken as part of a recent project, “For Freedoms.” These images reimagine Rockwell’s originals – the same scenes, same poses – but populate them with more diverse faces and bodies. Click the link and spend a few minutes. With all that I found powerful about this exhibit, this final small room was the part that moved me most, and made me feel really good.

In short, I found the Rockwell exhibit intriguing and moving, and was glad to learn more about the man.

Holocaust Museum Houston (photo credit)

The next day, I took myself to Houston’s Holocaust Museum, which I think I last visited some 30 years ago. What to say about the Holocaust Museum? I think they’ve done a pretty good job with an unspeakable task, to communicate a history of massive scale and unthinkable cruelty and ugliness and hate… I also did some thinking about how the Holocaust is something we sort of just all know about, to some extent – except that I now know that not everyone does know, which is a piece of profound news I’m still processing, actually. I have some memory of discovering this topic for the first time, when I was a kid, in elementary school. In my memory, much of the horror was communicated in images, photographs that showed graphically what it looked like to starve to death. This museum did not rely on such graphic, upsetting images. Most of the photographs were of healthy families and children from before the war, with a note that this child was killed at age seven, etc. I think graphic images are powerful, on the one hand, because they viscerally communicate how bad things were. On the other hand, they run the risk of sensational “torture porn,” of the image itself and its shock value taking away from the message we most need to hear. I appreciate the Holocaust Museum’s approach here. Also, one notable exception: there was a video showing on a monitor, near the floor, pointed straight up at the ceiling, and in a tube, so you had to stand directly over it and look straight down – in a rather uncomfortable position. I couldn’t figure out why they’d use such a weird design, until I saw the content of the video. It was about the post-liberation coverage of the concentration camps, how Eisenhower had the media come in to record and show exactly what was there. It was that footage, of the bodies recovered near death. It was quite graphic, and very affecting, and upsetting; at that point, the physical discomfort of the position required to watch the video made sense. It felt like part of the effect. My theory is that this design is to keep small children from watching.

I also visited the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit of the Civil Rights photography of Danny Lyon, an exhibit on Dolores Huerta, and the art of Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak. It was a lot to take in, but it was all good. I was especially taken with Lyon’s photography of SNCC, the Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, MLK and Stokely Carmichael, among other landmarks. There was one, captioned something like “police officers pose at such-and-such place,” where six white cops stood around and sneered; one raised his middle finger, while another offered a crotch grab and full-body fuck-you posture. Speaking of graphic; the hate was visible. I kept thinking, I wonder where this man is now, who his children are, if they’re proud of their father.

The Holocaust Museum is no joy, even if the stories of resistance and rescue are moving. But it’s at least as important a history for us to see now as it has ever been, and I’m grateful this museum exists. I have been thinking about the balance, between graphic ugliness and truth about the horrors, and upliftingness of stories of resistance. I don’t know where the right balance lies, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job. I recommend this visit to everyone.

I find even the best museums exhausting, but I do love a good museum, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take in some such experiences while I was in Houston. Among other things, I saw some old friends, attended a great yoga class, ate at a whole pile of excellent restaurants… it’s perhaps more bittersweet every time I go back to my hometown, but I do love every visit, too.

2 Responses

  1. More regarding Rockwell, and I’m surprised I didn’t mention it before.

    One of your grandmother’s close neighbors at her current residence is Chuck Marsh, who was one of Rockwell’s child models in Arlington, VT. It’s funny that they were unwitting Vermont ‘neighbors’ growing up, and now they live across the hall from each other.

    There are multiple references on the internet about Chuck & the many other models. There is a 2 minute video here of Chuck talking about the experience:

    Chuck was the boy featured in Rockwell’s book, ‘A Day in the Life of a Boy’, described here:

    And here is a brief feature, including Chuck, about a recent reunion of the Arlington models, in Vermont:,6511

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