It’s been wonderful having Professor Michael Berenbaum at the Museum this week.  For those of you who don’t know him, he is a preeminent Holocaust historian maybe best known to people like me as the Project Director who oversaw the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.  There is hardly a Holocaust Museum which he has not consulted.  We were very fortunate to have him peer review the text for the new Holocaust exhibition.

Over the last week he has given us much food for thought.  One area that we regularly debate is how graphic material is shown (if at all) and this has been particularly topical following Professor Berenbaum’s talk on the Sonderkommando. We are constantly discussing how much is too much, particularly when determining what is appropriate for students and younger visitors.

Professor Michael Berenbaum speaking at the Museum.

Professor Michael Berenbaum speaking at the Museum . 

Berenbaum’s main advice for us was that graphic material should not be voyeuristic and should not demean the victim further by showing it. I was most surprised to learn that the advocates for each side were reversed between our institutions.  At the USHMM the survivors wanted graphic content hidden and staff wanted it exhibited while in general staff here are often more cautious and its the survivors who advocate for more graphic material.

No area was more hotly debated than the content and display of the three exhibition films. Some footage will be on small monitors, some will be projected almost two meters high and some will be available in contained spaces.  The display of this material is very important and a key part of what Professor Berenbaum advised.

The film screening in the Ghetto section is almost two meters high and dominates the space.  This film shows war footage as countries are invaded and the persecution of the Jews that followed.  Here we chose not show some of the more graphic footage from The Warsaw Ghetto for example, not because we think it’s inappropriate (there is much worse on display) but because having it projected at such a large scale felt voyeuristic and we felt a duty of care to our younger visitors.

The liberation footage is probably the most confronting, particularly the colour footage from the liberation of Dachau.  This will be screened in the theatrette to the side of the exhibition.  Not particularly hidden or small but avoidable is one so wished.  Surprisingly, the USHMM shows this upon entry to the museum albeit on a significantly smaller screen.  This footage is among the most confrontational I have seen and deciding to include it was difficult but we felt it was necessary.

I think we have struck a good balance.  There is significantly more challenging material on display.  I believe we chose to use it in a way that is educational and furthers our visitors understand this history.  I think we have also been sensitive to the needs of our visitors and mindful that it can be confrontational.

Author: Shannon Biederman, Curator