London’s main Holocaust exhibit is neither Britain’s largest nor even a free-standing structure. (Both those distinctions go to the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire.) The Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, on London’s South Bank, spans two floors within a broader exhibit on Britain’s military prowess, its soberly arresting displays a marked contrast to the rockets and submarines in the outer halls that elicit squeals from giddy children.
The exhibition, which opened in June 2000, is a series of dimly-lit hallways, squared-off rooms and wedge-shaped recesses — a design that works to personalize a potentially overwhelming subject — and features a comprehensive and thoughtful array of materials: era artifacts, including shoes worn by Auschwitz victims and racial measuring instruments; survivor testimonies, which are constantly within earshot of visitors; and interactive features for further research. The exhibit also includes a model of Auschwitz and displays on antisemitic propaganda art and the pre-war history of European Jews and other minorities persecuted by the Nazis.
The exhibit’s minimally intrusive modernist setting — industrial brick, concrete screed, raw steel, glass and reclaimed wood — allows uninterrupted engagement with the displays, their effect as free of sanitization as of sensationalism. Its government patronage notwithstanding, the museum also features a refreshingly candid account of the wartime British government’s skepticism toward reports of mass exterminations of Jews in the East. For all the accomplishments of its curators, however, the Exhibition can hardly help a conceptual handicap: Its location inside another museum, where many visitors discover it almost by accident, diminishes its impact. In Britain, a country that was neither occupied by the Nazis nor considers itself complicit in the Holocaust, the Holocaust is presented as a sideline to the more important narrative of the nation’s triumph in World War II.
— BORIS FISHMAN