Handle with care

How do exhibition designers tackle sensitive issues such as the Holocaust without either causing offence or omitting crucial material?

How do you present the unimaginable and recreate the unthinkable? That’s the question Bob Baxter and Stephen Greenberg have wrestled with for the past four years.

Greenberg, architect at DEGW and Baxter, an exhibition designer and art director, have worked with graphic designers, model-makers, film-makers, historians, archivists and Holocaust survivors to create the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition, which was opened by the Queen on 6 June.

Greenberg says the project was fraught with difficulty. “The team debated everything. Every photograph, text, title and film clip. Were we giving ammunition to the denial lobby? Were we sure of the provenance of all the objects? Would it mean anything to a contemporary audience? And perhaps most sensitive of all, in letting the evidence speak for itself, were we being voyeuristic in what we would show?” he says.

These are the same sorts of questions the team at Event Communications will be asking themselves. The consultancy has been appointed to create the masterplan and concept for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The architect for the new building in Warsaw is yet to be named.

Event faces similar issues of sensitivity in its work for the Imperial War Museum of the North. The exhibition, which Event is working on with Real Studios, is divided into three sections: Why War, Children of War, and the Technology of War. “There is the issue of how much you can show,” says Event creative director Steve Simons. “We are not overly censoring stuff.” The museum opens in 2002.

Holocaust memorials, exhibitions and museums are still being built around the world lest we forget, but creating something that treats the subject with the dignity it deserves and appeals to a broad audience is a real design challenge. Berlin’s own Holocaust memorial is mired in controversy, and 55 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the foundation stones, in the shadow of the Brandenberg Gate, have still not been laid. Neo Nazis say a memorial shouldn’t be built at all, Berlin’s mayor is opposed to its construction and Paul Spiegel, leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, says the design, by US architect Peter Eisenman, which features 2700 tombstone-like slabs, is excessive in size and doesn’t honour other groups that were victims of the Nazis, such as gypsies and homosexuals.

The Imperial War Museum’s own Holocaust exhibition is an extraordinary mixture of the political and the personal. There are historical documents detailing Nazi policies against the Jews, and one room is devoted to an immense organogram detailing the layers of bureaucracy behind industrialised murder. There is a deportation rail car donated by Belgian railways and a funeral cart from the Warsaw ghetto alongside toys, diaries, photograph albums, drawings and film and audio testimony from survivors.

“Right from the outset we knew that we wanted to establish that these were ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who went through extraordinary things. We didn’t want them to be seen as victims, but as real people like you and me,” says Baxter.

As well as the obvious problems associated with handling such sensitive subject matter, the design team knew they would be constrained by the artefacts that were available.

As Alison Murchie, one of the Imperial War Museum’s research team, explains: “The museum already had material illustrating the rise of Nazism and the liberation of Belsen, but there is very little available from the ghettos and camps because so little of it survived.”

The Imperial War Museum contacted survivors’ newsletters, synagogues and Jewish groups to appeal for personal momentos, and says it was overwhelmed by the response. It also contacted other museums in Germany, Poland and the Ukraine to get access to material. “One of our researchers spent two-and-a-half years in Poland collecting artefacts, including 800 pairs of shoes from the Majdanku concentration camp in Poland,” says Murchie.

She adds that the design changed over time as more objects were donated or became available. “There was a blurring between the research side and the design side and as we found things, the design evolved around the work of the team.”

Greenberg adds that designers and museum staff approached the project from a different perspective. “When we started the project four years ago, the designers began with a cultural focus while the curatorial team had a historical focus. Gradually, these two positions found their equilibrium. The exhibition continually balances the historical account and its layers of evidence with personal stories and audio and visual testimonial. As visitors move between the historical and the cultural, they build up their own personal picture of the Holocaust and make the exhibition their own,” he says.

Baxter and Greenberg say the story has to speak for itself. It has to be carefully layered to permit different stories to be told, often simultaneously, but without the visitor losing the thread. There also had to be elements to which visitors could relate.

“The sheer scale of Birkenau or the horror of Majdanek cannot be brought back to Southwark. Other parts of the story have a direct resonance: the Kinder Transport (where Jewish refugee children were sent to Britain before the start of the war); the experience of British soldiers discovering Belsen; and the response of Britain and other nations to news of the Holocaust as it leaked out,” says Greenberg.

The design is an integral part of the experience. The first room is light and filled with music, family photographs and audio testimonials about Jewish life between World Wars I and II. But the visitor then moves into a space dedicated to the rise of Nazism and the space becomes darker, far more rigid and uses relentless black blocks on the walls and the floors.

“Sound was also very important in designing the exhibition. From music, you move on to the noise of Nazi speeches and then on to silence, apart from the voices of survivors. It is quite extraordinary to stand in front of a model of Auschwitz and listen to someone describe their own experiences,” says Baxter.

He adds that the exhibition would mean different things to different audiences. “We were very aware that it had to speak to Holocaust survivors and parties of 14-year-old kids. We had to be sensitive to the fact that we would be showing horrific material to schoolchildren and we didn’t want the exhibition to look as if it was glorifying Nazism.”

Greenberg adds, “We approached the content as the visitors’ advocate – from the viewpoint of different audiences and their responses, as well as the underlying historical narrative.”

It is the changing attitude of these visitors that allows designers to take a more adult approach. Says Simons at Event, “The more difficult the subject, the easier it is to deal with, because people are more aware of the horrors.”

However, sentimentality or a sense of voyeurism can still get in the way, and was a primary consideration for Din Associates with the Diana Princess of Wales memorial at the Spencer family home in Althorp.

Earl Spencer said at the planning stage that the memorial “must never become Britain’s answer to Graceland”, and Din project group director Angela Drinkall adds, “We were determined that it would not be a commercial or tacky environment.”

It wasn’t the most difficult project the consultancy had ever undertaken, she says, but it was the most sensitive. “We had to avoid being voyeuristic or maudlin. We had to tell a simple story of her life, and the family wanted it very much to be a celebration of her life rather than a mausoleum.”

Drinkall adds that the design team also had to be sensitive to Princess Diana’s family, who were still grieving. “That was difficult and we also had the press watching our every move, which made it even more difficult,” she says.

Responses to the Princess Diana memorial were mixed. While some visitors found it deeply moving, the press on the whole did not. The Daily Telegraph, for example, said that while it has all been “very professionally and expensively done”, it was also “extremely vulgar” and it concluded that “all the exhibits have only one purpose – which is to yank the heart strings and make the viewer cry.”

It’s unlikely a similar charge will be made against the Holocaust Exhibition. Audience reactions at previews have been very positive, says Murchie at the Imperial War Museum. “Some of the survivors who have seen the exhibition say ‘you didn’t tell the story of my village or my town’ but they know that the exhibition is also for future generations so they don’t mind the omission,” But perhaps most importantly, she says, “We have also had schoolchildren coming through and it had a very powerful impact on them. You could have heard a pin drop,” she says.

The Holocaust Exhibition is showing at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1

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