Communicating the history and moral questions of the Holocaust in a museum exhibition is a highly complex endeavour. Phil Simon explores how museums, visitors and educators can overcome the challenges.
A university tutor of mine once stopped, full flow in the middle of a lecture he was giving and said, seemingly to himself, that he would never know the Holocaust, that the more he learned, the more he realised he didn’t know. If this is true, how can we, as secondary witnesses of the Holocaust, who have only ever experienced the event through representations – books, films, museums and the like – grasp either a physical or a philosophical understanding of it? Furthermore, how can we educate young people about an event so opaque that even a seasoned academic is unable to “know” it?
In combating racism, antisemitism and extremism, secondary representations of the Holocaust will grow in importance as the Holocaust passes out of living memory. Museums, as popular and accessible sites of public learning, are central to this. However, in creating a Holocaust exhibition, certain issues become problematic which are not so in other historical exhibitions.
The primary problem faced in any museum, but exacerbated when curating a Holocaust exhibition, is how to educate visitors about an event that they may know little or nothing about, whilst at the same time avoiding misrepresenting the often complex and varying arguments behind it. This becomes more problematic when we take into account Saul Friedlander’s assertion, that the Holocaust is an event that is beyond the limits of representation. If it can’t be represented, then just how does one create a Holocaust exhibition that is educational and coherent?
In addition to this, Museums are obliged to tell the truth whilst presenting their visitors with an experience that is coherent and educational. This is less straightforward than it first seems, behind any exhibition there will always be debate based on different perspectives, politics and professional opinion. A moot point that confronts any curator in this context is that Holocaust studies is a field split broadly into two camps: those who believe that the Holocaust was planned from the earliest days of the Nazi regime, and those who argue that it was stumbled upon as a chillingly rational, final solution. This schism exists because no-one has yet conclusively argued in favour of either position. A museum that deals with the Holocaust must also resolve how to present this.
A Holocaust museum must simplify a philosophically complex historical event into a coherent exhibition. In this light, my tutor’s declaration that the Holocaust is ultimately unknowable jars with the remit of a museum, which is to inform and even entertain visitors during their leisure time. If teaching the unknowable is impossible, it is also, in this instance, imperative.
These are a few of the challenges that the Holocaust Educational Trust must grapple with whenever we take students or teachers to a Holocaust museum. Whether on an educational visit to the museum blocks at Auschwitz, or on our teacher training course at Yad Vashem in Israel, the Trust must provide a clear context, but also highlight the complexities behind the exhibition in question. By using a museum as an educational resource, therefore, the historical complexities behind the singular narrative of a Holocaust exhibition can be developed. Furthermore, these challenges themselves can offer valuable learning opportunities.
Britain’s National Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum is excellently curated, informative and accessible. It confronts the challenges set out above with a certain degree of success. By treating the Holocaust as an historical event in its own right, rather than as part of one of the nearby World War Two exhibitions, the museum lends an appropriate weight to the importance of the event. It presents the Holocaust as a cross-national experience, highlighting its pan-European nature, rather than only focusing on the British War-time experience of Nazi war crimes. In this way the IWM attempts to present to the visitor a History of the Holocaust that is not centred solely around the British experience of the event.
Furthermore, much of the exhibition is concerned with the plight of the victims. This might not seem worth mentioning, but popular British representations of the Holocaust have long been overly concerned with the perpetrators (think Kenneth Brannagh as Heydrich in Bafta winning BBC/HBO film Conspiracy as one recent example). However, the exhibition still must confront the challenge of presenting a coherent narrative to an event that is historically contested and incoherent. This is where teacher-led sessions have real value, as they expand on the underdeveloped ideas that are presented to museum visitor. Museums alone cannot singlehandedly educate young people about the Holocaust, but they can serve as important resources within a wider programme of Holocaust education.
Fortunately, the IWM offers an extensive teaching programme to educate young people on subjects such as Human Rights, religious and racial tolerance and antiemitism. In this way the exhibition is able to reach out to younger visitors in a manner that highlights the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust without diluting its complexity. When used as an educational tool, the IWM is able to overcome many of the challenges mentioned above. This is why structured Holocaust education is important: If an orthodox “knowledge” of the subject is out of reach, it is imperative that young students today are given the opportunity to explore and understand this.
Phil Simon is Communications Administrator at the Holocaust Educational Trust