Diaspora Affairs: Shepherding a legacy through change

Imperial War Museums in London revamps its Holocaust exhibit.

VISITORS LOOK at the V-1 flying bomb, which will be integrated into the new Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London (photo credit: COURTESY IWM)
VISITORS LOOK at the V-1 flying bomb, which will be integrated into the new Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London
(photo credit: COURTESY IWM)
Being the steward of the Holocaust narrative in the United Kingdom is no easy feat.
So much so, that when the Imperial War Museums organization in London decided to revamp its Holocaust exhibit – which originally opened in 2000 and is London’s only major exhibit dedicated to the subject – it decided to start nearly from the beginning. Moreover, IWM’s leadership sought to thoroughly examine how it wants to tell its new story.
Curator and content leader James Bulgin set out with a team to review Holocaust museums and memorials the world over, to get a sense of how the world’s largest crime against humanity has been portrayed in varying locations.
The challenge Bulgin said he found for himself and for the museum was to get the story of the Holocaust’s development front and center to British society.
As research has grown significantly since the original Holocaust exhibition opened nearly 20 years ago, the museum saw the need to include a more complete scale of the Nazis’ crimes, as well as those of their allies and collaborators, and to reframe the stories of Jewish life.
Whereas most Holocaust museums – as well as the current exhibit at IWM and even the famed Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – are rather dark and tend to physically create a sense of “closing in” on their visitors, the museum wants to flip this concept, “because we want to bring awareness that these crimes were not committed in the dark, in secret, but rather in full view,” Bulgin said.
He said that the new museum will be well lit and airy, to create the sense that this was something that was public after all, and that general society allowed the Nazis to commit these crimes.
As for the narrative of the Holocaust exhibit itself, it will be divided into three sections, with opening and closing sections. The idea is to make them thematic rather than chronological, while still abiding by a linear time line. Some artifacts from the current exhibit will be repurposed and folded into the new one, as it was evident from a brief tour of the current exhibit that some items were added ex post facto, and were lacking a proper context.
The first section of the museum will emphasize life before the Holocaust, and shed more light on how Jewish families and communities existed and lived daily life.
Bulgin emphasized the desire to also highlight the role that Orthodox Judaism played in these communities, and how the Jews were never quite the singular, homogeneous group of people that the Nazis attempted to describe them as. The curator said that other exhibitions tend to either over-romanticize Orthodox Judaism or to show the Jews just as assimilated as any other group of people, whereas he hopes the new exhibit will do neither.
“The idea is to take victims out of victimhood,” Bulgin said. “The idea is to make them have identities. And as well as the perpetrators, the narrative is usually absent about who they were as people. And they were not necessarily brainwashed.”
The other major change Bulgin said he hopes will aid in bringing more awareness to London is to show the UK’s acknowledgment of the Holocaust more profoundly and boldly earlier on in the exhibit. Certain correspondences and artifacts attest to how the British were cognizant of the beginning of Nazi crimes – and some even raised the alarm about it, but to little avail.
Such emphasis early on is intended to make visitors think about the gradual tolerance of Nazi ideology and behavior, he said, “because awareness isn’t necessarily enough. We are looking for meaningful understanding.”
THIS STRONG initiative came after a report by University College London’s Center for Holocaust Education revealed that secondary school students had little accurate knowledge of the historic event. The study, published in 2014, showed that 68% of students were unsure of what “antisemitism” meant, and their explanations of it often overlooked racial dimensions of Nazi antisemitism. A third of students also had no idea about the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, with 10% believing the number to be no more than 100,000 lives lost.
Another benefit that Bulgin said he hopes for as part of creating the new exhibit is that more local material from the UK from the time period will come to light. As his team has started cultivating artifacts for the new exhibit, new finds originally from within the UK were discovered through private owners and elsewhere. The majority of artifacts are on loan from other museums, but the amount of British-owned material that exists will be integral to the new exhibit, he said.
After the IWM finished the first phase of its complete transformation with the opening of the new First World War Galleries in July 2014, the museum set its sights on the Holocaust and Second World War galleries. The upcoming phase of renovation, expected to be completed in 2021, will feature 2,118 square meters dedicated to the Second World War on the first level of the museum in London, and will double the amount of space, as well as open space in the museum that was not previously seen by the public. The Holocaust galleries will be expanded to 1,297 sq.m. and relocated to the second level of the museum to allow the Holocaust narrative to be more conceptually and physically linked to the museum’s World War II section.
The museum plans to link its current V-1 flying bomb, which is suspended in the atrium as a crossover artifact, to the two new exhibits. Thousands of slave laborers were killed making the V-1 weapons, while thousands of slaves created tunnels for the underground factories in which the bombs were produced.
New learning spaces will also be dedicated as part of the expansion and renovation: up to 508 sq.m. of renovated space on both the first and second levels of the museum. The idea of the expansion in its cozy, bright section of the museum is to encourage more school groups and individuals to use the learning center.
To bolster and fund the new galleries, which require £30.5 million, the IWM turned to major donors who would be interested in the cause of educating the public.
CHELSEA FOOTBALL Club owner Roman Abramovich was among those who significantly stood up to contribute to London’s new exhibit. The club has been making strides since the beginning of 2018 in a strong campaign to combat antisemitism, with multi-pronged efforts to engage and educate.
To complement Abramovich’s contribution to the galleries, the football club dedicated a dinner and entertainment night to be hosted at its home, Stamford Bridge, to help raise the last 10% of the funds. The April 4 “Light from the Dark” fund-raiser was attended by around 300 people, who were treated to an evening of discussion with local Holocaust survivors, led by stars such as comedian David Baddiel, director Michael Attenborough and television courtroom celebrity Robert Rinder.
“I’d like to thank Roman Abramovich, Bruce Buck and everyone at the Chelsea Foundation for organizing a fascinating evening, and for their support toward our new Holocaust Galleries at IWM London,” said Diane Lees, IWM director-general. “Hearing the stories of survivors was incredibly moving, and reminds us that we shall soon be in a world where there are no living witnesses to the events of the Holocaust and the Second World War – so our duty to educate future generations has never been more pressing.
“The support from the Chelsea Foundation will help IWM to reinterpret our Holocaust galleries, which will present critical insights into the Holocaust as well as integrate the devastating events of the Holocaust into the broader history of the Second World War, revealing why this often overlooked dimension is so important,” she continued.
ROBERT SINGER, CEO of the World Jewish Congress, was also present at the April 4 fund-raising event with Chelsea, and described in detail WJC’s partnership with Chelsea FC.
“Chelsea is doing a fantastic job in leading the charge against antisemitism in sports,” Singer said in a statement to The Jerusalem Post. “The only way to deal with Holocaust denial and all forms of antisemitism and hatred is through strong leadership. This means taking the driver’s seat and publicly denouncing and condemning antisemitism when it rears its head.
“It means educational systems and educators doing a proper job in teaching about the darkest moments in European history. It means politicians, legislators, and law enforcement agencies doing everything in their power to ensure that proper legal, operational and budgetary mechanisms are put in place to contend with the proliferation of hatred,” Singer said.
“It is also the responsibility of civil groups, religious leaders and business sectors to show their moral responsibility to that effect,” he said. “Premier league players are leaders and role models among young people and fan bases on the whole, and the fact that Chelsea has taken a stance on this is very significant and important.”
Previously, the club participated in the “We Remember” campaign to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and worked with WJC on its Red Card for Hate initiative. The initiative is a three-pronged approach to combat racism, xenophobia, discrimination and antisemitism in sports.
The IWM, meanwhile, is trying to draw attention to its current exhibit before the change is complete. New this year is a guided audio tour of the exhibition, which provides a comprehensive account of the events that came to be known as the Holocaust. Their guided tour of the exhibition looks at the origins and implementation of the Final Solution, showing how persecution turned to mass extermination, highlighting some of the incredible stories of the people caught up in these terrible events. The tour lasts approximately 90 minutes, which is about the amount of time necessary to take in the current exhibit.
IWM was founded in 1917 with the aim of ensuring that future generations would understand the causes, the course and the consequences of World War I. Over the years, and as history went on, subsequent conflicts were included in the museum’s presentations.
The museums organization includes five different museums: the flagship branch in London; IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester; IWM Duxford, near Cambridge; the Churchill War Rooms in Winston Churchill’s secret headquarters below Whitehall; and HMS Belfast, the World War II cruiser in the Pool of London on the River Thames.
The museums draw 2.8 million visitors a year.