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Few can say they look injustice in the face — or reckon with the dark side of their own heritage — like Maja Lynn, a student in Pitt’s University Honors College and Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. From volunteering at a memorial site for a concentration camp to creating a memorial after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, Lynn’s work to recognize and preserve the memory of atrocities has earned her a prestigious Marshall Scholarship.
“Maja is a uniquely curious, focused and a compelling researcher and scholar,” said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “I am hardly surprised that she earned such a distinguished award, and I join the rest of the University of Pittsburgh community in celebrating this milestone and her continued success.”
The Marshall Scholarship funds students with exceptional academic records and leadership potential to study in the United Kingdom after receiving their undergraduate degree. Lynn, an anthropology and museum studies senior, is the 11th Pitt student to receive the highly competitive award.
“This is a truly incredible accomplishment, and I am so proud of Maja for her talent, dedication and hard work,” said University Honors College Dean Nicola Foote. “While most people avert their eyes from genocide and mass atrocity, Maja has made it her life’s work to create and support public exhibitions that can raise awareness in the hope of preventing further conflict.”
That act of closely examining atrocities and understanding how communities heal from them is a through line of Lynn’s academic career. As the child of a German immigrant, Lynn found facing the realities of the Holocaust difficult. When she reached her senior year in high school, she decided that needed to change. She traveled to Germany and volunteered at a concentration camp memorial site in Dachau.
“I spent a year there leading tours and working on a biography project,” she said. “It was the first place that taught me about museums and monuments, and how important it is for people to create memory and a narrative after conflict and violence.”
More recently, Lynn helped create a collection of student responses to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Further exploring her heritage brought her face to face with yet another atrocity, the Herero and Nama genocide perpetrated by German colonial soldiers in the early 1900s. Germany, however, has been slow to recognize those harms. “It made me see Germany in an entirely new light, because I had always considered it a country that does an exceptional job with Holocaust remembrance,” she said.
She chose the genocide as the topic of her Bachelor of Philosophy thesis, a project that involved interviewing the descendants of victims. The work was as much a personal journey for Lynn as a professional one. “It has been a learning process for me to confront my own identity, learn to see it for what it is and look for ways to actively work against the harms my identity has caused,” she said.
With the scholarship, Lynn will pursue a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, in a city that hasn’t fully recovered from the scars of conflict that occurred just decades ago. “People there are still, it seems, debating how their history should be told and processing everything that happened,” she said.
Foote similarly sees the connection between the city where Lynn will earn her degree and her field of study. “Through her Marshall Scholarship, Maja will be pursuing a fascinating and rich course of study that builds directly on her previous research, and I am especially excited that she will be in Belfast — a city that embodies post-conflict healing and where her work will have powerful daily resonance,” she said. “I know that Maja will continue the push forward the fields of anthropology and museum studies, and I have no doubt she will emerge as one of the leading scholars of her generation.”
After receiving her MA, Lynn hopes to pursue a PhD in anthropology and eventually develop exhibits and memorials for societies dealing with the aftermath of conflict.
“I want to look at how museums are operating in post-conflict societies as spaces that can be generators of a collective narrative and places where that narrative and those memories are actively decided and debated,” she said. She also sees many ways in which museums could do better in addressing and undoing their colonial legacy.
For Lynn, both her own self and the institution of museums are works in progress — but ones that can do good in the world.
“I acknowledge the ways I need to change and also that the museum needs to change,” she said. “Hopefully I can contribute to that process.”
— Patrick Monahan