LONDON – There is a ritual that visitors often go through when entering a Holocaust exhibit. They are silent in dismal silence. Their rhythm slows down to the rhythm of a pilgrim. Their expression becomes slightly intimidated when they see the unthinkable and begin to struggle against the evidence of human depravity.
These reactions are natural, conditioned by the design concepts which naturally dominated the museums and memorials dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe: darkness, shadows, sepia.
The Imperial War Museum in London has tried something new. By introducing the history of the Holocaust into well-lit rooms, he attempted to illuminate and reexamine elements of the Holocaust narrative that are sometimes “misunderstood”.
âThe big problem with dark spaces and Holocaust museums,â says James Bulgin, the Holocaust scholar who organized the Holocaust Gallery from conception to completion, âis that as soon as you walk into dark space, you feel like the narrative leads inexorably one way, which it wasn’t.
âThis suggests that the only appropriate response is silence,â he says. “The subject is of course extremely tragic, but you want people to feel empowered to ask questions and develop their understanding, and that is done through inquiry.”
âYou also tacitly suggest that these things happened in the shadows, or in invisible dark spaces, and not in the world we all live in,â he adds. âIt pushes him back into the distant past. “
The museum opened two new permanent galleries – one on the Holocaust, the other on WWII more generally – to the public on October 20, after a Â£ 30.7million renovation project (41, $ 2 million) which replaced the existing Holocaust exhibit. , which opened in 2000.
On November 10, the Duchess of Cambridge officially opened the two, as well as a temporary photo exhibition on Holocaust survivors and their families which will be open until early January.
Together, the new galleries occupy two floors and cover 3,000 square meters (33,000 square feet). The Holocaust Gallery alone has some 2,000 photos, posters and artefacts, including a section of the barracks of the Velten concentration camp – a sub-camp of Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen – which is said to be the last remaining part of the camp. .
Bulgin came late to Holocaust studies. He cut his teeth in theatrical production in London’s West End, and his professional background is immediately noticeable in the use of space and design choices that make the gallery both avant-garde and tactful.
âIt’s about designing the space and the tone,â Bulgin says. “We will never know what these people went through, but we can easily understand the environment in which it happened.”
As visitors wander through a series of interlocking rooms, large video screens display contemporary sights and sounds of the sites where millions of people have been murdered.
“We use contemporary images of environments as they are today, not to try to recreate them, but to say forests and birdsong – these are complex sensory feelings through which we experience the reality, âBulgin explains. “The small moment of connection between the two is important.”
The design choices at the Imperial War Museum can be both bold and imperceptible.
Photos tend to be placed at eye level so that “people are looking you in the eye throughout the gallery,” Bulgin explains. Sepia, “who speaks of the passing of time rather than the authenticity of the image as it existed”, has been banned, he says.
Objects are placed where they would be in the real world, and books placed as if they were handed to you. âThere is logic here,â Bulgin says.
These little choices fuel the central purpose of the exhibit: to reflect recent advances in Holocaust research and correct misconceptions about how the Holocaust is remembered in Britain.
“I was concerned that the Holocaust was misunderstood and worded in a way that was not always particularly historically accurate, but also did not treat Jewish individuals and communities appropriately in the narrative,” says Bulgin.
âAll the major Holocaust museums presented this whole narrative as one of an industrialized genocide – that it was based around Auschwitz and nowhere else. To me, the idea that this is this mechanized process is really misleading, âhe says. âIn many ways it’s very dirty and basic. Brutal, bloody and barbaric.
The ghettos and the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ massacres in Eastern Europe are central to the Imperial War Museum’s narrative, alongside the most famous and gruesome images of the death camps.
Bulgin also sought to bring into public consciousness a more serious appreciation of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their motivations. Bulgin was concerned that “many of our visitors had a conditioned image of the abuser which was very defined by people like Amon GÃ¶th in ‘Schindler’s List’.”
âWhat’s much more terrifying,â he says, âis that it was relatively normal people doing it, and somehow because of the nervousness about humanize the authors, they were pushed to the fringes of the story. “
The negotiations on how to present their atrocities have been carefully considered. The photos have been kept at their original size. The black borders indicate when they were taken by Nazi photographers.
British newspaper records and the level of contemporary knowledge about the Holocaust in Britain are also presented as a way to push back against the perception that the scale of the Holocaust was not fully understood until 1945.
The British Jewish establishment has praised the exhibit almost universally.
âIt’s not centered on Auschwitz. It looks at the Holocaust holistically, âsays Ben Fuller, educator at the Holocaust Educational Trust. âIn education, we say to try to break out of Auschwitz-centric learning models, and that’s what the exhibition did – in fact, it went beyond that. “
There were concerns that the Holocaust narrative, housed in a British military museum, could quickly turn to the horrific climax of history.
However, when visitors enter, they discover hundreds of glittering images and an introduction to the Jews of pre-war Europe. Dutch Jews are seen giggling on a North Sea beach. Greek Jews are bored in front of a synagogue. Romanian Jews enjoy coffee in a Bucharest cafe. Introducing British visitors to the full spectrum and geographic extent of Jewish life in pre-war Europe plays an important role in the exhibit, which also includes a section on the Holocaust in Hungary.
âWhere we start talking about Holocaust education is pre-war Jewish life and understanding who the Jews of Europe were before the Holocaust,â Fuller explains. âThat’s what they did with this exhibition. They humanized and focused on the people who are the victims as people first rather than seeing them only through a spectrum of their victimization. “
Simon Bentley, chairman of Yad Vashem UK, the UK branch of Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, said the Imperial War Museum’s efforts had been “sensational.”
âIt’s the kind of place you’re going to visit, knowing that you’re going to come back many times because if you want to do it justice, it requires a lot of visits,â says Bentley.
âIt is enormously worth the effort. The quality is incredibly high – the number of artifacts and objects to view, the display mode, the extent of the light versus the reverse which is more usual, âhe says.
Despite the praise, some in the Jewish community feel that the Imperial War Museum’s approach may have been too limited.
Ivor Perl, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who survived Auschwitz, the Dachau subcamps and a death march before being liberated in April 1945, says that although “they did with great taste and tact “,” the horror of the whole story was so enormous that to cover it with a single canvas is very hard.
Perl, which is included in the recorded testimonials at the end of the exhibit, adds that “the horror was so overwhelming you could never do it justice.”
Active in Holocaust education in Britain, Perl fears the effort to tell the larger story has come at the expense of the true horror of the Holocaust. He survived the Holocaust with his brother, but they lost their parents and seven siblings.
“Will this be enough to pass the information on to future generations?” It remains to be seen. Personally, I think a few more things about the gas chambers or the camps themselves could have improved it, âhe says.
âIt’s a nice, hygienic little thing. It is beautiful and neat. You can then go for some coffee and tea, âhe says. âBut it’s so difficult. The enormity of it all – when can you say you’ve done enough and included anything and everything? “