Bournemouth, MA

Yehudit Inbar, the director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jerusalem, was in Bournemouth, MA on October 24 2006 to deliver a passionate and moving keynote speech on interpretation of the Holocaust for day two of the Museums Association conference.

When issues of identity and diversity are being widely debated in UK society at large, Inbar’s conference speech was both poignant and timely, and offered a reminder that at the heart of all of our collections are people – their stories and what she described as their “cultural right to be remembered as individualsâ€?.

She also underlined the fact that museums have an integral and central role to play in those debates by looking at the changing way we are remembering victims.

The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which took 10 years to complete and opened in March 2005, contains exhibits including remnants of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, but focuses on the individual tragedies of the Holocaust, with collections of personal stories woven into the displays.

Inbar took us on a tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum project, from the early days when the victims were treated by curators in much the same way that they had been treated by their murderers, as faceless statistics, to her groundbreaking present day interpretation, which focuses on personal narratives.

The museum features the names and photographs of many of the victims recorded in a 3million-page collection of testimonies, which are displayed surrounded by an expanse of water, in the museum’s Hall of Names.

Double fence at Auschwitz. Picture supplied by the Wiener Library
a black and white photograph of a barbed wire fence

Widely accepted as a successful interpretation of the subject, Inbar explained that memories were still very raw when they were collating material and how the story of the Holocaust was to some extent told through Nazi eyes – using Nazi photographs and material gathered through the course of the process by its instigators.

However, over the last 10 years, following a protracted period of research, debate and engagement with survivors much has changed.

Asked how she began this process of ‘humanising’ the story of the holocaust she later explained to the 24 Hour Museum how the very first exhibition she developed was actually for children.

“It’s too hard for them [the under-10s], they develop a reaction against the subject. Often survivors who were children at the time of the Holocaust didn’t see themselves as Holocaust survivors – they were in conflict and without a sense of identity. Once they started talking they couldn’t stop.â€?

The exhibition she created 10 years ago as a three-month temporary exhibition is still on show at the Holocaust Museum and takes games and activities as its focus. Although there initial scepticism from other professionals, survivors were eager to contribute.

A fundamental step for her was to follow the designer’s instinct to use the colour of the toys that children had played with and to break free of the black and white exhibits that predominated in exhibitions about the Holocaust.

“Children are children are children – no matter where they are, they still play,â€? she explained. “The Holocaust also happened in colour. At Auschwitz the sky was blue and when it wasn’t snowing the grass was green. To take the colours away is to distance ourselves from the experience, to pretend it didn’t happen.â€?
a screen shot of website

UK museums are preparing to commemorate the abolition of slavery in 2007 and in 2006 a government-funded website exploring the history of the slave trade was launched.

Dealing with the Holocaust naturally comes with its own problems and sensitivities – something that UK museums are beginning to grapple with as we approach the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007.

“The slavery issue has a lot of associations with the Holocaust,â€? said Inbar. “It’s very similar in many respects.â€?

Like the Holocaust, which is dominated by material from the Nazis, the history of slavery suffers from being a little one-sided – there is sometimes little material to work with and what there is tends to be the story from the point of view of the slave masters and traders.

“You just have to be creative and find ways to tell the story. Often there is writing – you can use writing in all sorts of creative ways in museums. You only need very few things, things that are icons, that represent the story.â€?

The abolition of slavery commemorations in 2007 offer their own set of challenges, but the idea that interpretations and exhibits should provide an emotional bond between the visitor and the person whose story is exhibited is hopefully something that museum professionals here will have already taken on board.