At the Imperial War Museum, Holocaust Exhibition



I was there with a group of theatre directors, and so could not but see the exhibition as a carefully-managed work of theatre. An uplifting video Prologue, with light and yiddish music and fond memories. A strong narrative arc through a sequence of immersive multimedia environments and audience interactions. At one point, I was walking through a railway carriage; at another, I sat in an open booth, something like a confessional. the words of an Auschwitz inmate playing in my ears; there were altars, memorials, and condemning organisational charts. And at the end, a bright open space with a large screen, playing unadorned (but edited) survivor testimony. A discreet feedback box. An ending. Installation art has a great deal to learn from museums.


In the opening rooms, the liberal democratic ideology of the curators was transparent to anyone sensitive to such things; later, as we descended from history into horror, politics gave way to testimony and bearing witness. It is difficult to be ideological about genocide. And yet we often manage it.


Two small boys and their tired-looking mother:

– They took them in there and then they gassed them.
– Shut up, Kyle, he’s 5, he doesn’t need to know about that.


This feeling that one has a duty to read it all, absorb it all – that to skip parts and skim texts would be to dishonour the dead. That to attend was an active and spiritual remembering. But one cannot digest it all – and I don’t mean that the events are too horrible to comprehend, which they may or may not be, but simply that there is such a thing as museum fatigue, and, with the best will in the world, one eventually stops understanding. And we kept going while at the same time giving up.


– Mum . . . could people escape?
– A long pause.
– Yeah. Yeah luv, they could.

(Sometimes life is sentimental, and sometimes sentimental is the the most difficult thing to be.)


There is an exhibition on the floor below: “An exploration of genocide”. I couldn’t go in. But it reminded me of something: that, despite the iconic status it has achieved, the intense semiotic power, the Holocaust is not an aberration. It is not the most incomprehensibly evil thing which has ever happened. It is really something terribly ordinary.


The Holocaust’s status is a result of the very industrialisation and revolution in communication which allowed its icy bureaucratic effectiveness: it is created history, not in the sense that deniers mean, but in that it played out in the echo chamber of the modern Western world. It has been more documented, more spoken about, more fictionalised, more filmed, more exhibited, more remembered than any other atrocity in history. That it is why it is the ultimate evil.


– I need to go now.
– What?
– It’s sick, this stuff.
– Well, you know, it’s important to know about it.
– Well read a a book then. We’re going. You owe me a drink.