Remembrance of things past

The Imperial War Museum's new Holocaust Exhibition is a brave attempt to present the unrepresentable. But is its purpose educational, or an act of remembrance?
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The Independent Online

We will of course forget, because we forget everything. In 500 years time, say, the Holocaust won't mean much to many. And the demand that we should never forget is perhaps deliberately asking the impossible: a game of inconceivables, trying to match an infinity of evil with an eternity of remembrance. But oblivion will take its course. It's happening. A child born 10 years ago can't be as haunted by those events as one born 40 years ago.

We will of course forget, because we forget everything. In 500 years time, say, the Holocaust won't mean much to many. And the demand that we should never forget is perhaps deliberately asking the impossible: a game of inconceivables, trying to match an infinity of evil with an eternity of remembrance. But oblivion will take its course. It's happening. A child born 10 years ago can't be as haunted by those events as one born 40 years ago.

The Holocaust Exhibition, a permanent presentation which opens tomorrow at the Imperial War Museum, is aimed chiefly at staying this inevitable, intolerable oblivion. Its target audience, I guess, is today's child (though it's not recommended to under 14s). But its functions can't simply be educational. It is itself a deed of remembrance. It is also a representation of something that many have thought unrepresentable. It is in its nature obliged to be more than any exhibition could be. Let's not ask the impossible straight off.

The Holocaust Exhibition is an exhibition. Its business is to show and tell. And it has the kind of displays that history exhibitions normally have: books and documents and posters, artefacts and remains, maps, diagrams, models, photographs, old newsreel and other films, archive recordings of voices, and newly-made videos of survivors and witnesses talking. It occupies two floors of the museum; there are many words to hear and read, and a visit could take a couple of hours.

As an exhibition it's effective enough. Its story is told as clearly, fully and uncontroversially as possible. The emphasis is on the persecution and destruction of the Jews, but the other victims are not neglected. There's a useful short video documentary about the history of European Jews and European anti-Semitism. The question of what the British knew about the Holocaust, and and what the British did, is aired. The question of "Hitler's willing executioners" is left in the air. No large moral lessons are drawn.

The exhibits usually make the point they're trying to make, though not always. I thought the display devoted to Nazi "racial science", with its swatches of different coloured hair, and devices for measuring the cranium, would probably need more explanation than it could ever get in an exhibition this size (but it was important to try). And in the large scale-model of the section Auschwitz-Birkenau where the trains arrived, it's hard to tell precisely what's going on.

But a Holocaust exhibition is not going to be judged only by the justice and clarity of its account. There are also vexed questions of taste. All those words we use to indict the wrongful representation of suffering - sensationalise, aestheticise, trivialise, glamorise, dehumanise, make a spectacle of, anaesthetise - will likely come into play.

And with a Holocaust exhibition there is a particular dilemma of presentation. The nightmare must be both brought close and held at a distance. We should be made to feel keenly - and to understand that we can never imagine. An as-if-you-were-there, re-living "experience" is out of the question. But any exhibition that hopes to hold a young audience's attention through a long visit will need to avoid lifeless sobriety too.

Some specifics. One of the first sounds you here as you enter the exhibition is (inevitably) a burst of Hitler's speechifying. And as ever, it's exciting. But I don't think it's wrong to use it. If Nazism hadn't been exciting, it would never have flourished. And that excitement doesn't survive in you for long. Later, there are photographs of pits filled with numberless naked corpses, which look like a medieval hell, and acquire an obscene grandeur, a kind of beauty, which is all wrong. But then what's the alternative? Not to show them? A realistic reconstruction?

The only gesture towards that kind of reconstruction is a corridor gallery that's covered with what seems to be the roof of a transport train. Too much like decor, I thought, but at least they don't have a whole wagon for you to get into. As for the general stagecraft of the exhibition, it's neither a ghost-train nor an archive, but something quasi-atmospheric in-between.

The lighting is generally low throughout (solemnity), though with emphatic bursts of chiaroscuro. The architecture of the displays uses thematic materials, sometimes suggesting terror - sheet-steel visibly welded, raw wooden boards - but mostly a sort of tiling that seems to be imitating tomb masonry. This kind of treatment is standard for special exhibitions at the IWM - compare with the one about spying on the floor below. The theatricality is a bit tacky. But the worst of it is really that some of the embossed texts are side-lit out of legibility.

The most puzzling elements, in terms of how one should feel about them, were the many single objects, recovered from history and isolated in glass cases or in the middle of the floor, often spotlit. There's a canister of Zyklon B gas-pellets, a syringe used for medical experiments, a dissecting table used in a euthanasia programme, a manhole cover from the Lvov sewer when many Jews hid, a death-cart from the Warsaw ghetto, women's shoes from Ravensbrück - and even Raoul Wallenberg's typewriter, used to write protective passes for Hungarian Jews, even a disinfectant spray used after the liberation.

What for? These real things, thus displayed, do not make history more vivid. Quite the opposite. They're hardly, as they stand, historical evidence. What they are is relics (remembering that, as with holy martyrs, any accessory may become a relic, the instruments of death as much as the martyr's own remains). These objects are emblems for our contemplation. Indeed, that seems to be largely true of this Holocaust exhibition as a whole.

I wonder, what am I doing - me, now, not a child - going round this exhibition? I'm not learning things that I don't know already. I'm not making much contribution to preventing such a thing happening again. Rather, through this show, I'm doing the Holocaust thing one more time, as I've done it before through books, films and TV. I'm getting the same load of reflections and feelings that any other serious dwelling on the Holocaust engenders. But this sense of repetition, of the same as before, doesn't make it time wasted. It is precisely the point. I am performing an observance, an act of piety, something that must be done every so often. Going round these displays becomes more like a rite than a museum visit.

And that's not wrong. We don't have any public rite of Holocaust remembrance. But it does make for a strange kind of museum visit - specifically in your relationship to other visitors. With almost any other exhibition, there's a kind of privacy among visitors. You're not sure how the others are responding; but you can guess that their response won't always be the same as yours. But here at the Holocaust Exhibition it's not like that. The exhibition's fundamental point, that this great evil was done, is plain, undeniable, undeniably important. We know we all feel this. The normal privacy is gone, and I think the viewer feels peculiarly exposed. There are places for you to go and sit by yourself, which will doubtless be needed.

As for a public rite, perhaps we need that too, though it's hard to imagine its devising. And this exhibition will do for the time being, however long that may be.

Holocaust Exhibition: Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1. Opens, permanently, tomorrow

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