My thesis explores the use of pre-war photographs of the individual in Holocaust museums and exhibitions around the world. I look at the function of such images, asking how they reinstate the individual within the overall narrative of the Holocaust, and what impact they have on visitors to the museum space.
My PhD proposal was developed while trying to link together themes from my Masters degrees. I have an MA in Museum Studies and in 2014 I carried out a MLitt investigating gendered experiences in female authored concentration camp memoirs. The gendered angle of my MLitt called my attention to the growth of interest in situating the individual within Holocaust narratives. Such an approach struck me not only as interesting, but also as an inherently ethical approach to this difficult topic. While visiting various Holocaust exhibitions in London and Berlin, I noticed an increasing sense of discomfort and unease looking at some of the photographs on display, in particular atrocity images.
In some cases, the act of photographing the victims (almost always carried out by the perpetrators), was a deliberate part of the torture, freezing and making permanent their humiliation. Was I at risk at becoming complicit in this act of humiliation by looking? Do these photographs of people at the moments of their murder, torture, and humiliation not lock them forever in a state of perpetual victimhood? What benefits can be drawn from the use of these images, and do these benefits outweigh the costs? I wondered what alternative approaches to the use of photographs in Holocaust exhibitions were available, and with the help of supervisors and other members of staff in Newcastle University’s School of Modern Languages, I designed a PhD proposal looking at the function of pre-war photographs of the individual, and the display contexts in which they are used in museums.
My data comes from field work carried out at six sites in London, Berlin, Israel, and America, which allows me to develop an international comparative element. In October 2015 I was lucky enough to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has a particularly interesting exhibition space containing over 1000 pre-Holocaust images of the inhabitants of an Eastern European town named Eishishok. Visually speaking, this exhibition is remarkably striking, and when the visitor learns that the vast majority of those depicted were murdered by Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators in September 1941, it becomes incredibly evocative and powerful: watching visitor reactions to this display reminded me why I am studying what can at times be a difficult topic. Looking at the people shown in the photographs, at women, men, children, people reading, sunbathing, skiing, flirting, smoking, celebrating, studying, reminds me that these people, and the countless others who were killed in the Holocaust, deserve a considered and accurate representation of themselves in Holocaust narratives, and should not be seen only in terms of how they died, but far more importantly, how they lived.
Elise Bath is completing her PhD at Newcastle University under the supervision of Dr Beate Müller and Dr Rhiannon Mason. Her research is funded by the AHRC.
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