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Should the new Holocaust gallery be a permanent feature of this museum?

The Imperial War Museum's exhibition is intended as a reminder of past evil

London

A battery of arguments can be fired at the idea of a Holocaust museum. The concept of a primarily visual display which concentrates on the sufferings of one people during the twentieth century raises the question as to why so much attention should be devoted to Jewish sufferings when, for example, mass destruction in Stalinist Russia under Stalin was comparably fierce?

Many Jews, particularly perhaps younger ones, feel unhappy about the idea of Jewishness being presented to a broad audience in negative terms, with Jews shown primarily as victims, when the long history of Jewish culture has made so positive a contribution to the world.

From a European point of view, however sensitive the treatment, there is no avoiding the fact that the Holocaust arose in Germany and was primarily carried out by Germans: the repetition of these histories might well contribute to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about the country, which are hardly helpful at any level.

There is of course a clear case for creating Holocaust galleries in Israel and Germany (where the resolution of this goal has proved particularly difficult). The justification for the Holocaust Museum in Washington was that many younger Americans were unaware of this history or believed it to have been invented.

But the idea which has been mooted in recent years that every leading city should contain a Holocaust memorial is harder to accept. Britain, for example, was one of the few European countries where Jews were not subjected to persecution: here the impact of both world wars was immeasurably more significant for most of the population.

To this argument the Imperial War Museum—which has just opened its new Holocaust gallery—would reply that the museum has recently changed its policy to cover the history of international, rather than just British, conflict in the twentieth century that Britain, as promulgators of the Balfour Declaration, played a crucial part in the creation of Israel; and that this country accepted numerous Jewish refugees, many of whom remained here and have crucially influenced the country since 1945.

Significantly, too, Britain also refused to receive many other potential refugees. According to these arguments the Holocaust is one of the key issues of the later twentieth century, and a crucial influence on intellectual and political developments.

For Britain, a crucial aspect of the Holocaust is that, in contrast to the genocides in Soviet Russia and Cambodia, the Nazi persecution was perpetrated in a county intimately linked to Britain and in the 1920s arguably more civilised and intellectually sophisticated.

The Imperial War Museum (misleadingly named: there is very little imperial about it, and it focuses on war’s impact on people rather than the history of conflict) has been struggling with the development of a Holocaust gallery for the past five years. The exhibition constitutes much the most striking element in the new block with which the museum has completed its master plan. After much research and consultation, and the assembly of an appropriate collection and loans, the permanent exhibition (funded by foundations and the Heritage Lottery Fund) opened in June at the Imperial War Museum, as the most disturbing of all the current Lottery-funded projects.

Expectations that the Holocaust exhibition might imitate the Holocaust Museum in Washington have not been realised.

This exhibition is very much smaller. It does not occupy its own building. The physical presentation does not rely on a violently expressionistic building or galleries, like the Washington prototype. It does not follow the example of Washington in presenting extra spaces where especially disturbing material is segregated from children.

It does not offer a Zionist message. Instead, the new exhibition relies on a sober but carefully orchestrated account of the events, using personal histories and views from outside (such as the official British response) as often as possible. The display uses pre-Holocaust material about Jewish culture, Nazi propaganda material and speeches (sound is used particularly effectively), the testimony of survivors, a haunting model of a section of Birkenau which evokes the factory for human destruction.

The designers, Stephen Greenberg and Bob Baxter, have created a disturbing but understated series of spaces. A circle at the entrance, lined with wood, illustrates the happy history of Jewish culture and is matched by a further circle at the end, while in between a succession of strikingly lit interiors use a variety of hard materials and expressive spaces, subtly playing on the visitor’s consciousness.

While the display does not avoid such painful issues as the reluctance of 1930s British governments to assist in the rescue of Jewish victims, positive aspects of the Holocaust, the courage of survivors and of those who sheltered them, are celebrated. Perhaps inevitably, there are simplifications here, and one might cite the account of the Treaty of Versailles and the economic crises of the interwar period. But this is in general a grave, thoughtful and unvindictive exhibition, capable of appealing to audiences at many different levels.

Whether this exhibition will remain, or should remain, a permanent element of the museum’s displays is another issue. It occupies within the museum’s surprisingly limited spaces a space larger than the areas devoted to World War I or World War II. Within the building, it has a particularly prominent location on the main axis, its entrance facing the arriving visitor; in a sense it seems to have been given a grim priority. The exhibition is intended as a reminder of past evil and a warning of the ease with which such evil is perpetrated, even in a highly civilised country. But it may be that to future generations the permanent exposition of this history may no longer seem appropriate, and that what one must call the current preoccupation with Fascism may seem less relevant. But, given the brief, it is hard to see how the Imperial War Museum could have done better.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘What is has to do with us'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 105 July 2000