I recently spent a long weekend in Kaunas, Lithuania, which is the European Capital of Culture for 2022. Kaunas is Lithuania's second city after the capital, Vilnius, and important to the country's economic, academic and cultural life. It also has a troubled and complex past, which is why I was there.
I went to Kaunas because a friend of mine, artist Jen Kagan, has worked for many years in Kaunas and has been heavily involved in the city's work for its Capital of Culture year. Jen's parents were the Lithuanian Holocaust survivors Joseph and Margaret Kagan who were imprisoned in the Kaunas ghetto after the Nazi invasion and survived in hiding in a local factory with the help of the factory foreman, who risked his life to help them. I curated Margaret's story together with those of 15 other Holocaust survivors in 'Through Our Eyes', the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Centre North in Huddersfield which I set up during my four years as its first director. Jen acted as creative director for the AV and interactive elements of the exhibition which include a 12-minute immersive film and over four hours of edited survivor testimony. I'm a huge admirer of Jen both as an artist and a human being, so when I learned she had been invited to Kaunas to tell her parents' story in the place where such traumatic events took place, of course I wanted to see what she'd done.
Jen's exhibition, 'Out of Darkness', is an extraordinary piece of multi-layered storytelling that weaves Margaret and Joseph's individual narratives together with her own experience of discovering and interpreting her parents' life histories. It is, in Jen's words, 'a work not of history, but a piecing together of memory'. Jen showed an earlier version of the exhibition at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax in 2016 but the show has been completely reworked and redeveloped for its new space, a run-down abandoned building in the centre of Kaunas that acts as an atmospheric backdrop to a disorienting, frequently harrowing story that unfolds through the memories of the main characters.
The exhibition guides us through Margaret and Joseph's stories via a series of themed spaces and recurring narrative devices including 'talking' books, diary extracts, telephones with recorded messages, and suitcases that the visitor is invited to open. Jen's background in theatre design and lighting is clearly apparent: this is more art installation than museum-style exhibition, making clever use of metaphor and analogy to illustrate the impossible choices that her parents faced in a visceral and experiential way. A speakeasy-style gambling room is a particularly effective means of exploring the role of chance and in determining people's chances of survival: visitors find out about the selection process by which Jewish people were identified to be shot in one of the infamous Nazi 'Aktions' surrounded by a Roulette wheel, a Monopoly game ("go to the ghetto"), a chess set and a game of bagatelle.
As a curator of traumatic histories I am very conscious of the layering of history, memory and commemoration in the exhibitions that museums create about the Holocaust and was curious to see how Jen would reflect this in her exhibition, both as an artist and as someone whose life has been infused with her parents' stories. What's unusual about 'Out of Darkness' compared with the way museums render such histories is the way in which Jen opens up the difference between history and memory in an imaginative and experiential way: she shows rather than telling, which makes an immediate connection with visitors. The exhibition contains three versions of 'the box', as her mother called their hiding place in Kaunas: the version that Jen imagined in childhood, the version her mum described to her, and the version as her dad remembered it. The three versions are radically different. It's a simple, but very effective way of inviting visitors to reflect on the meaning and impact of memory, its resonance through the generations, and its relationship to more formal historical research. Everything in 'Out of Darkness' is a matter of historical record, but the strength of Jen's approach is the way that she brings history to life through her focus on memory and storytelling and the way she layers her parents' memories with her own experience of discovering their stories as she grew up.
Working with Jen to curate the exhibition in Huddersfield made me think much more creatively about how museums connect with audiences and particularly about how we interpret lived experience and memory. Her focus on making an emotional connection with the audience has helped me recognise that curating an exhibition is about mediating an experience - yes, it's about accurate research and authentic collections and stories, but what people will remember is not so much the facts and dates and information, but how the experience made them feel. 'Out of Darkness' encapsulates this perfectly. I can't wait to see what Jen does next.