Monday, 2 January 2012

Is the IWM’s Holocaust Exhibition “too traumatic?”

Earlier in the year, I spoke with a university professor about applying for a postgraduate degree. We were talking about art exhibitions, and somehow the conversation moved to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The teacher told me she took her 14-year-old niece to the exhibition, but the girl was so distraught she had to leave. (The age restriction on the exhibition is 14 years and over.) The teacher then stated she thought the exhibition was too traumatic. At the time, I didn’t really think much of this, but after learning about museums in more depth I began to think more about what she had said. Most children study the Holocaust at school – I had to watch parts of Schindler’s List when I was 14, and I remember getting upset about it. But everyone should learn about this dark period in our history, and parts of it cannot be hidden or covered up. Basically, if you take children to the museum, you have to judge whether they will be distressed by it.

The next time I travelled to London, I returned to the exhibition. All of the photographs are very shocking – it is difficult to forget the image of the bulldozer shovelling bodies at Bergen Belsen, or the nameless faces of Jews and gypsies that died in the camps. Among others, the dissection table presents a challenge of interpretation, how do you explain this to children? 

The collection of shoes is a poignant reminder of those who died. It gives us some idea of the sheer number of victims, and shows us the humanity behind an inconceivable statistic. This section can, perhaps more than most, help children understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, as something so simple as shoes gives us something to relate to.

I am glad I returned to the exhibition. It is powerful because of its shocking nature, and as a result it is difficult to forget. Ignoring certain facts because they are “too traumatic” shows an unwillingness to face the truth. A Holocaust exhibition that obscured reality would insult those who died. Hiding the traumatic leads us into a place of comfortable naivety.

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