How will museums change their approach to the Holocaust as it moves beyond living memory? - Museums Association

How will museums change their approach to the Holocaust as it moves beyond living memory?

Heritage institutions have a particular responsibility to keep the memory of the Nazi genocide alive, but they are facing challenges of their own in a new political era
Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, London Adjaye Associates, Ron Arad Architects and Gustafson Porter + Bowman
On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, world leaders assembled with 120 Holocaust survivors at the Nazi death camp for what could be one of the last such ceremonies to hear direct testimony from those who lived through the atrocity. Museums around the world were planning a wide range of commemorative events to join them in marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2020. Institutions that preserve and display the history of the Holocaust are facing up to a new challenge: bearing witness to the genocide as the Nazi era retreats beyond living memory. In the coming decade there is likely to be a significant rethink across the heritage sector of the way the story of the Holocaust is told.
Signs of that transformation are already apparent in the UK, with a redisplay of the Holocaust Galleries at London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) due to be unveiled in 2021, a new Holocaust memorial and centre being built in Westminster, and a £5m redevelopment taking place at Manchester Jewish Museum.
In Cumbria, meanwhile, a new museum is being developed by the Lake District Paradise Project to capture the story of the 300 child Holocaust survivors who were brought to Lake Windermere to recuperate after the second world war. Globally, new museums that deal with the Holocaust are in the works in Hungary, the Netherlands and the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, among others. 
Personal stories
These institutions are finding new ways of keeping the history alive, often by giving greater prominence to more personal, emotional narratives. With its building currently closed, Manchester Jewish Museum developed two cultural experiences for Holocaust Memorial Day, which were staged at Manchester Central Library.
The first featured a series of mini-performances of original songs, based on real-life testimonies from the museum’s oral history collection, composed by the museum’s community writing group. Audiences were then invited to listen to the real testimonies and view accompanying objects to discover the stories behind the songs.
Later in the evening, the Canadian theatre-maker Tamara Micner performed a solo show, Holocaust Brunch, a dark comedy that reflected on the experience of growing up as the descendant of Holocaust survivors and explored how communities can heal from ancestral trauma.
The IWM’s Holocaust Galleries will also have personal stories at their heart, delving more deeply into the lives of individual people than the museum’s previous, more broadly historical exhibition. The IWM announced this week that one of these exhibits would be a rare birth certificate belonging to one of the only living survivors to have been born in a concentration camp, Eva Clarke, who was born in Mauthausen in 1945, less than a week before the camp’s liberation. 
However, the telling of the Holocaust has always been a flashpoint for denialism and politicisation – even more so in an age where intolerance, antisemitism and far right dogma are on the rise. Last year, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was accused of whitewashing the Trump administration when it issued a statement condemning attempts to draw an analogy between the US government’s family separation policies and Nazism; 560 Holocaust scholars signed a letter urging the museum to retract the statement, saying the comparison was apt.
Elsewhere, museums have found themselves at the centre of a new historical revisionism: the afore-mentioned House of Fates museum in Budapest, developed by the nationalist Hungarian government, was completed six years ago but remains unopened amid contentious rows over its content; other Holocaust museums and scholars have refused to work with the institution, condemning it as a falsification of history. Likewise the Polish government has been accused of interfering in the governance and content of several museums, including Polin: the History of Polish Jews, as part of a wider move to wrest control of narratives about the country’s second world war history.   In the current climate, the quote chosen by the Auschwitz Memorial Museum to commemorate this year’s anniversary does not seem accidental: the museum has selected an urgent warning written by a Sonderkommando prisoner, Załmen Gradowski, who was murdered during the 1944 Birkenau prisoner revolt, and whose manuscripts were found hidden after the camp was liberated: “We have a dark premonition because we know!” In the coming years, museums and heritage sites will have a particular responsibility to ensure that such warnings from the past are never forgotten.
Get involved
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the charity that promotes and supports the commemorations in the UK, is inviting museums to add the activities and events they are running for Holocaust Memorial Day to its online map, in order to promote them and help the trust build a national picture of the activities taking place. Last year, 38 activities or events in museums were listed by the trust - 0.36% of the 10,000 total activities listed in 2019. Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the trust, urged organisations to get involved this year, saying: "This event is an important part of the national picture for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020. There are thousands of events taking place for this significant day, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"Today our world often feels fragile and vulnerable, with widespread prejudice and the language of hatred needing to be challenged in the UK. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities to stop division and the spread of identity-based hostility in our society."
A previous version of the article incorrectly referred to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a Polish concentration camp. Its correct Unesco definition is a "German Nazi concentration (and extermination) camp" and it was established in what was then territory that had been annexed by Germany.

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.