Object lessons - Museums Association

Object lessons

Prior to the publication of a book on extreme collecting, Suzanne Bardgett recalls the anxious quest for artefacts for the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust Exhibition
Suzanne Bardgett
The task of creating the Holocaust Exhibition was not without its anxieties, the availability of original material for the showcases being one of them. Public expectations were high.

The exhibition was the flagship project of the Museum’s £18m redevelopment scheme and would be the largest display the museum had ever created at its London site. Yet the number of objects related to Nazi persecution held by the museum – when laid out for the project team’s inspection – barely covered one table.

The quest for artefacts dominated the first two years of the project. The curatorial team developed their own expertise from reading, visiting museums and meeting camp survivors.

We talked about the peculiar street furniture of Polish cities and the items that would convey the culture that had been lost during the years of Nazi oppression.

We realised how important it would be to have variety of texture and scale. “Have we got a child’s toy yet?” “Have we any clothing worn in a ghetto?” And worse: if a gas van had survived, would we try to bring it to the UK?

When the exhibition opened in 2000, one reviewer wrote: “Tireless searching for artefacts, relics and film has given us something which takes at least two hours to examine properly and will, I suspect, stay in the memory forever.”

We put this quotation on the posters that advertised the exhibition on the London Underground – a gratifying result for the team who had put their all into the project.

The high cost of international loans means that we have tried to increase our own holdings so that future curators have a strong collection to draw on. We are also conscious that the present decade is our last chance to acquire memorabilia and information from families with a direct memory of Nazi persecution.

However, reviewing the entire intake of artefacts since those first steps back in 1996, it is an inescapable fact that the collection is still modest – certainly compared with those documenting other major events covered by the museum. The fact is that to survive years of harsh treatment and murderous persecution was not the norm.

For those who did come out of the camps, liberation brought long waits for visas, temporary lodgings, and often several false starts at new lives. To keep hold of lice-infested clothing or worn-out belongings was unusual.

And the effort at building the Holocaust collection came relatively late in the museum’s history: our team often contemplated how much more would have been collected if the work had started earlier.

The telephone rings and a story unfolds. A particularly powerful acquisition was a pair of shoes worn on a death march in 1945. They had been owned by Gisele Friedman, who had been deported to Auschwitz where she had been the victim of medical experiments.

Friedman ended her days in France where she entrusted the relics of her wartime ordeal to an English friend. A decade after her death the friend approached us seeking a permanent home for what she knew to be historically important items.

Where in the late 1990s we were dealing mainly with camp survivors, today our donors tend to be the children of survivors or former refugees to this country. About 50,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia arrived in Britain before 1939, so there was a strong demographic impact.

But the climate of the day meant that many families kept their past histories private. Now, with increased media focus on those whose grandparents fell victim to the Nazi persecutions, people are starting to delve into their own pasts.

We had a visit from a family who had inherited a series of letters sent to their recently deceased father. The grandparents had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, one of them dying there, the other surviving for a while in the notorious Trawniki SS labour camp and sending letters to her children for several months.

The same week we took a call from a woman who had inherited some 200 letters, which she was having translated. Her family history had been suppressed and she only felt free to pursue her Jewish identity after her father had died.

There are occasional insights into the broader story of how Britain reacted to the arrival of refugees from Europe. An 82-year old came to see us, wanting to deposit the papers of her late friend.

The two had done war work together in the same Birmingham factory, but the refugee had found it hard adapting to new circumstances. A friendship had developed, the older woman influencing our visitor to go to night-school and become a teacher.

Parting with what is often the only physical connection to a family’s past life in Europe cannot be easy. We have been especially touched by the gifting of no fewer than three wedding outfits by camp survivors.

Two were worn by Belsen survivors Gena Turgel and Tauba Biber who married their husbands in that camp shortly after liberation. Alicia Melamed Adams, who survived the Drohobycz ghetto and Beskiden camp, gave us the jacket she wore on her wedding day in Warsaw in 1946.

Having fragments of a past life turned into a museum story with text, lighting and careful positioning in a showcase has – we have learned – given many of our donors a sense that their family’s tragedy has been recognised and even memorialised.

“My mother now has a resting place and it is in your exhibition,” I was told by Barbara Stimler, one of the witnesses in the exhibition’s videos.

One could ask whether choosing to feature eye-catching and unusual artefacts – a Viennese clockwork bear, a candy-striped dress worn in the Warsaw Ghetto – risks giving a misleading impression of what it was to be dehumanised, starved and eventually killed, which was the fate of millions?

Some might think that the exhibitions created in recent years, in their competition to absorb and engender empathy with the persecuted, risk domesticating this terrible event too much. But the lives that were shattered were ordinary lives in which household possessions were a constant presence.

To show only the darker evidence of the ghettos and camps would be to dwell solely on the perpetrators’ story. To show what was saved, against the odds, restores some dignity to those who were oppressed.

Last year we were given two rag dolls. They are about seven inches tall, male and female, wearing striped concentration camp uniforms. The bodies are finely stitched from soft cloth, with delicately painted facial features and the prisoner numbers printed on tiny labels. They had been given to the donor’s stepfather, Gwyn Edmond Jones, at Belsen in 1945, presumably a gift from survivors.

Then my colleague Yehudit Inbar, of the Yad Vashem Holocaust centre in Israel, sent me a reference to a book by Muriel Knox Doherty, an Australian senior nurse sent to oversee the rehabilitation process at the camp.

Her memoir described how dolls had been crafted during occupational therapy lessons at Belsen, and how one 15-year-old “with golden hands” used the fabric of discarded camp uniforms to make dolls in the likeness of camp inmates.

At first sight, a cloth doll seems inadequate to represent the aftermath of Belsen. But today we better understand how objects can speak across the decades. The fine stitching suggests someone with tailoring experience, perhaps one of the Jewish women whose sewing skills saved their lives?

The choice to represent a camp inmate – did that spring from a wish to not ‘put away’ her ordeal so fast? What was it like for those women, bent over needles, thread, scissors and piles of fabric, comparing, discussing, consoling, trying to make sense of all they had come through and all they had lost?

Suzanne Bardgett is the head of the department of Holocaust and genocide history at the Imperial War Museum.

A longer version of this article will appear in Extreme Collecting, edited by Graeme Were and to be published in 2011.

Collecting outside mainstream museum practice

Extreme Collecting is a selection of essays examining collecting practices that lie outside what is normally considered acceptable or mainstream museum practice.

It will deal with those objects that resist being collected for reasons of size, scale, materiality, ordinariness, mass production, or for their political, legal or ethical nature.

The first section deals with difficult objects: those often recognised by museums that pose particular ethical problems such as human remains, Holocaust collecting, war, civil unrest and eugenics.

The second section examines the collecting of ordinary, mundane or mass-produced objects. It includes essays on the collecting of personal items of sentimental value, mass-produced Japanese prints and religious icons traded through the internet, as well as tourist souvenirs from the American Southwest.

The final section considers “extreme matter” and deals with issues of scale (of time, of size, and of space): large military objects, plastics, rapidly degrading food packaging, an archive of defunct websites, and collecting for time capsules.

Graeme Were

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