Exhibition review: Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum

Prewar Jewish life exhibited in the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum, London, November 2021

I was recently invited to a preview of the IWM's new Holocaust learning programme, which meant I had an excuse to go to London and spend some time in the museum's new Holocaust and Second World War galleries which have been many years in the making. This busts my claim to have curated the UK's newest permanent Holocaust gallery, given that mine opened in 2017, but I can forgive them for that because what they have achieved is remarkable. I think there are three reasons behind the effectiveness of what is an extraordinarily comprehensive exhibition. 


The first thing I want to note is the sheer volume of detailed research and evidence in this exhibition. Evidence-based research is no less than we should expect from a national museum, but I don't think I've seen an exhibition on the Holocaust with so much meticulously researched detail. The museum has the luxury of space (although I doubt it felt like that to the curatorial team, who will have been faced with challenging decisions about what to include and what to leave out), and that has enabled it to tell a story that is global in scope and spans several decades more comprehensively than I've seen elsewhere. There has been a running joke that the IWM's Holocaust and Second World War galleries have taken longer to come to fruition that the duration of the war itself, but that investment of time is more than apparent in the quality of the finished gallery. A huge volume of material has been curated with intelligence and sensitivity.


The second notable achievement is the focus on personalising the subject matter through the extensive use of artefacts and records that represent the lived experience of people who faced impossible dilemmas. This is important for several reasons. First, it humanises an otherwise vast and overwhelming subject by enabling the visitor to connect with events on an individual level and understand the Holocaust's impact on a human scale. I've written elsewhere about how I used personal stories and individual testimony to engage visitors with the permanent Holocaust exhibition 'Through Our Eyes' at the University of Huddersfield. Secondly, it explodes some of the myths and misconceptions about Jewish people that fuel antisemitism. The first room of the exhibition contains an exploration of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust that is focused on photographs of people and shows the richness, diversity, beauty and ordinariness of people's everyday lives. Finally, there is a pervasive myth that the victims of the Holocaust went meekly or unwittingly to their deaths that could not be further from the truth. The exhibition presents a volume of contemporary evidence, from the desperate letters written by Jewish parents trying to get their children out of Germany in the 1930s to the heartbreaking notes thrown from deportation trains by people being transported to the death camps, that leaves us in no doubt that Jewish people not only knew their lives were in danger but were desperately crying out for help. 


The third element is that the gallery cleaves closely to a detailed chronology of events. The amount of space they have to work with enables curators to focus on elements of the Holocaust story that are often overlooked, and to put the more celebrated or better-known aspects of it in their appropriate context. The importance of chronology is particularly apparent as events unfold through the 1940s with the mass shootings in Eastern Europe from 1941 and the development of concentration and death camps in occupied territories. Concentration camps - particularly Auschwitz-Birkenau - loom so large in the public consciousness that they frequently outweigh other aspects of the narrative. This gallery redresses that imbalance, using the evidence that exists from a small number of massacres in the Baltic states to give full weight to the role of the Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators in the murder of Jewish people. Over a third of all Holocaust victims were killed in mass shootings. Their stories are poignantly told with sensitive use of atrocity images and careful design that makes the point that most of these victims were killed outdoors, in broad daylight. Some were transported thousands of miles to be murdered; others were killed close to where they had lived all their lives. It's particularly instructive to see the Hungarian deportations to Auschwitz in 1944 put into their proper context. Many exhibitions - including my own - have an over-emphasis on this story and there are a number of reasons for this. Due to the timing of their deportation towards the end of the war, many of the survivors of Auschwitz were Hungarian, so there are more living witnesses to this aspect of the genocide. The so-called 'Auschwitz Album', the only surviving photographic record of the process that led to mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau, means that their experiences are over-represented in the visual record. The IWM's exhibition is the first time I've seen this experience properly contextualised in an exhibition, including those at Auschwitz itself. 


In foregrounding academic research, personalising the subject matter with individual stories and paying close attention to chronology, the IWM is following a house style established with its First World War galleries in 2014. It is equally effective here. The outcome of these carefully considered decisions is an exhibition that redresses some of the pervasive myths and misconceptions about the Holocaust. The input from the academic advisory board is clear, as is the impact of UCL's Centre for Holocaust Education whose groundbreaking research into what young people know and understand about the Holocaust highlights the failings of 20 years of Holocaust education but also provides a significant evidence base for organisations in the field to work from.  For example, the Kindertransport is a well-known and much-celebrated story in the UK, but the story of approximately 20,000 Jewish adult refugees who came to the UK to work as domestic servants - double the number of Kindertransportees - is not well known. This gallery puts those stories into a better balance and avoids the self-congratulatory narrative that often pervades British Kindertransport narrative by contextualising it in terms of the sheer scale of the refugee crisis of the 1930s. 


It seems churlish to criticise when I can only imagine how much thought and effort went into this exhibition, though the criticisms I do have relate more to design decisions than curatorial ones. The overall design of the exhibition works well but there's a lack of graphic design particularly with the written interpretation that doesn't help visitors to navigate their way through a huge amount of content. This contrasts unfavourably with the Second World War galleries which have a clear hierarchy of content and a much more effective approach to graphic design that enables visitors to differentiate between overview content and detail. I also find IWM's refusal to use maps in its interpretation unhelpful when dealing with a subject so intrinsically connected to geography. Maps are incredibly challenging for curators - they're political representations, political boundaries change frequently, and they're often difficult for visitors to interpret (I have listened to Holocaust academics bemoan the UK population's dire understanding of European geography on more than one occasion). And yet the experience of physical deportation and forced migration was central to the HOlocaust and a sense of what this means across space as well as time is important.  Secondly, before the galleries were launched much was made about how the IWM was going to integrate the Holocaust into the context of the Second World War for the first time, but I think this has been overstated (and I note that the museum now describes the two galleries as being 'under the same roof'). This may be the case but they remain distinct and separate, on different floors of the museum, with a very different approach to design and clearly intended for different target audiences. There is some crossover in that a V2 rocket is displayed across two floors and interpreted in both exhibitions but that's about it. Finally, I'll admit to have been very disappointed with the way the gallery has used Holocaust survivor testimony and I'm hoping this is something that will be addressed further in future. The IWM has a policy of not incorporating testimony into the narrative of exhibitions on the basis that memory is not the same as contemporary evidence. I completely respect that and I think we need a lot more debate in museums about how we use and contextualise oral history for exactly this reason. That said, first-person accounts of the Holocaust have a unique power to connect with visitors. Survivor testimony is included at the end of the exhibition but it almost looks like an afterthought. It's not put into context and it's not well edited so the visitor has no control over when the videos start and stop and there's no way of finding out anything about the person whose interview is playing. I suspect this has happened because it's right the end of the exhibition and by then the team will have been running out of time and money but I hope they'll revisit this area in future. 


These gripes aside, it's an exceptional exhibition that offers one response to the question that continually arises in Holocaust education circles, which is what will happen when there are no survivors left? I've worked in this field since 2009 and this question has continually come up. It's clearly an upsetting idea on an individual level, given that we're talking about the passing of a generation of people who have in many cases devoted huge amounts of their time and energy to education and charitable work, but as a dilemma for the museum profession I think it's been vastly overstated. The Holocaust is one of the most heavily researched areas of history. There is a vast amount of survivior testimony in the public domain as well as significant archival and object collections. Museums, as the IWM so ably demonstrates, will continue to bring together research, evidence, collections and storytelling to ensure these histories continue to be told.