Rethinking the Holocaust displays at the Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) previous Holocaust exhibition, open between 2000 and 2020, took visitors inside a different world: a dark, sealed-in space where a narrow passageway led them inexorably downwards towards the horror that awaited. The exhibition is remembered by many for powerfully conveying the devastation of the genocide.
But it also encapsulated design and interpretive trends of the early 21st century that are now seen as outdated. These dimly lit, restrictive museum environments, which created a sense of disorientation and dislocation, are felt to have created the impression that it happened under the cover of darkness and was an inevitable tragedy that could not have been halted once in motion.
After six years in development, the IWM unveiled its new Holocaust Galleries last October. The redeveloped exhibition came after extensive consultation with survivors and their families – many of whom were aware it would be the last chance they had to shape how their stories are told. “One survivor gripped my hands really tightly and said ‘please just take care of our history’,” says James Bulgin, the IWM’s head of content. “It was a profound moment.”
One of the central principles of the new exhibition is its emphasis on “the fact that it happened in our world and we walk among its remnants,” says Bulgin. “The people who did these things were very much like you or me.”
Designed by Casson Mann, the galleries are well lit and painted in muted tones of blue and green. They are designed to be viewed alongside the museum’s new second world war exhibition – one of the first times the stories of these distinct but connected events have been curated in tandem.
“They are separate but they rely on each other. We look at the invisible threads that emanate between them,” says Bulgin. The two galleries – which span separate floors of the museum – are visually linked by a V1 flying bomb that hangs suspended between both floors, a weapon built by Jewish forced labour and used in the war against allied forces.
Certain aspects of the Holocaust, such as the deportation trains and the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, loom large in its iconography. The new exhibition strives to go beyond these, seeking to convey the scale of the genocide across Europe and the complicity of so many different nations.
It also builds on less explored areas of the Holocaust like the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads. The exhibition aims to correct the narrative that the genocide was efficient and industrialised, says Bulgin, a trope that is felt to absolve perpetrators of individual culpability. “We wanted to show that in reality the death camps were far more dirty and chaotic,” he says.
The perpetrators are also treated differently. As time has gone on, survivors and their relatives have become more willing to accept the presence of key Nazi leaders on the exhibition floor; their roles in the atrocity are explained on lifesize cut-outs that meet visitors at eye level, reinforcing the message that those who carried out the genocide were ordinary, unremarkable people.
One of the key ethical questions for curators of Holocaust history is how much graphic evidence should be on display. Here, photographs from the death camps are displayed in the scale in which they were originally taken. Mostly pocket-sized, they are not hidden away, but visitors can make a conscious choice about how much detail they see.
Another change in approach is a focus on intimate stories of victims and survivors. Previous tellings of the Holocaust sometimes cast Jewish victims as “inert subjects in someone else’s narrative,” says Bulgin.
Here, the exhibition looks at how the ghettos in which Jewish communities were forcibly resettled became “living spaces”, examining how they adapted even in the face of extreme degradation – and showing that their eventual fates need not have been inevitable. Small, individual objects have replaced piles of artefacts, reclaiming the agency and humanity of victims.
The exhibition has chosen to avoid artificially recreating settings or moments from the genocide. There are no dioramas of concentration camps; instead, museum staff travelled to the sites where the genocide took place and filmed them as they look now.
Capturing the contemporary sights and sounds of those places enables the visitor to recognise, even for a “flicker of a second”, that the genocide happened in a world very much like ours, says Bulgin. “It closes the gap between the conceivable and the inconceivable.”