Disobedient Objects Exhibition

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We were lucky enough to catch this exhibition they day before it closed down on 2nd February. Although I’ve always been focused much more on social than political history, this exhibition did a great job at tying the two strands of history together; providing a much more personalised take on political situations. The focus on “disobedient objects” referred to items used by different communities and individuals during times of political protest; ranging from the inflatable cobblestones used in the worker protests in Berlin and Barcelona in 2012 to examples of defaced currency. Although hosted in a relatively small space, the V&A managed to provide a huge amount of information and objects without overloading the viewer. There was a clear progression around the exhibit, and a variety of different methods were used to keep the attention of the visitor. For instance, the videos and oral testimonies of the people actually involved in the protests were particularly thought provoking. Overall, this exhibit did an amazing job at providing personal perspectives of political situations. Although it is now closed, for more information it’s well worth having a look at the V&A’s “disobedient objects” book which is based on the exhibition.

Holocaust Memorial Day

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In order to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day I attended the “Life in a Jar” Talk hosted by the British Library. It was an extremely powerful talk, with an emotive screening of a newly made documentary entitled Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers. Until this event I had never heard of the actions of this remarkable women before; a woman who sacrificed her life in order to save thousands of Jewish children from a Polish ghetto. After helping them escape, she documented the original names and hiding places of each of these children, writing each name on a piece of tissue paper, rolling it up and placing it in a jar. This therefore inspired the name of the event – “Life in a Jar”. This heroic act miraculously helped parents relocate their children after the war.

After this emotional screening, Lili Pohlmann and Sir Erich Reich recollected their experiences of the Holocaust as children. Despite having studied the Holocaust at several points during my undergraduate studies, it was the first time I have actually heard first hand the experiences of Holocaust survivors. It was hard to believe that these two people endured such horrific circumstances at such a young age. I would really encourage people to take a look at the recently digitised oral history interviews in the Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust collection on the British Library Sounds website, for an insight into the powerful personal stories of Holocaust survivors.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Jewish-Holocaust-survivors

Anne Frank House, Amsterdam: A Critical Review

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“I want to go on living even after my death” Anne Frank, 5 April 1944

At the young age of 15, Anne Frank wished that her tragic story would be remembered for years to come, and without a doubt this wish came true. The story of this young girl has now formed a well-known tale often told in holocaust studies; a story truly brought to life through the heart breaking experience of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It is an exhibition which will undoubtedly leave you thinking for weeks to come.

For almost two years, Anne Frank and her family concealed themselves in the secret annex at Prinsengracht 263, the business premises of Otto Frank. Here they tried to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews, however, on the 4th August 1944 their hiding place was betrayed. The diary Anne kept from her 13th birthday records the experience of their time in hiding and is now considered a world famous account, after being published by Anne’s father on 25th June 1947.

Today, the Anne Frank House is one of the most visited attractions in Amsterdam, with almost one million visitors each year. Visitors are led through the array of offices belonging to Otto Frank before reaching the secret bookcase which hides the annex where the family went into hiding. There is no escaping that the events of the past truly did happen in the spot you are standing in; an overwhelmingly powerful experience. In his opening speech on 3 May 1960 Otto Frank declared that “with the restoration of the building at Prinsengracht 263, the aim was to leave the Secret Annexe in its original state as far as possible. The Secret Annexe is unchanged”.[1] This decision has resulted in the annex remaining unfurnished after the removal of all possessions upon the family’s arrest. The eeriness of these empty rooms is a stark reminder of the Nazis attempt to eradicate the entire Jewish population. Whilst traditionally museums have gone as far as possible to engage the audience through restoration of their projects, the decision of Otto Frank to preserve the annex in its unfurnished state undoubtedly adds to the moving nature of the visit. To re-furnish the home would be to add a sense of falseness. Visitors are all the more able to engage with the rooms for the fact that it is unchanged. Traces of the household members remain in the pictures of film stars glued to the walls by Anne, and the height markings of the children pencilled on the wallpaper. Knowing that these details are authentic make the characters of the past still ever present.

After walking through the empty rooms of the annex, where there is very little further information provided, visitors are next moved on to the modern extension of the museum. Here guests are provided with context of the war and the holocaust. The historical background provided about the war invites guests to place Anne’s story within the context of the time. Visitors are thus actively encouraged to consider not just Anne’s experiences but also those of the six million Jews who suffered a similar fate. The presentation of this material is extremely powerful, however due to its sensitive nature, the subject may not always be appropriate for younger members of the public. The photography on display at times is extremely explicit and as a result this is not an easy place to visit. We should be aware that the troubling nature of this difficult period of history means that it is necessarily emotional and upsetting. It was a horrific time and this exhibition dramatically brings this home to the public.

It is undeniably true that this area of the museum lacks the historical artefacts privileged in most institutions. The museum relies largely on boards of text which may deter some guests. However, there is still an aura of professionalism despite this. The museum makes use of oral history interviews throughout the exhibits, using excerpts from interviews with the office workers who helped the family, and people who knew them. Most powerfully, visitors are able to engage with the story from the perspective of Anne’s own father, the only survivor of those in hiding. This interaction really highlights the reality of a man loosing his family to the holocaust. Before entering the museum visitors may regard the holocaust as a part of the all-distant past. However, seeing Otto Frank on a coloured screen, talking personally about his experiences creates an emotional link which brings that past into the present. Visitors are able to comprehend that this story still has many links with society today.

Towards the end of the exhibition, the museum provides an innovative opportunity for guests to engage with history itself. In the “Reflections of Anne Frank” exhibition guests are provided with the opportunity to consider how the memory of this young girl lives on today. To emphasise the importance of a personal reaction to this material, a film is shown interviewing 22 writers, visitors, actors and friends of Anne Frank. These interviewees offer their own opinion of what Anne Frank means to them, thus encouraging the public to think for themselves about this dramatic historical event. The museum succeeds in reincorporating an emotional perspective into the past, rather than simply regurgitating a bland list of events.

The unavoidable problem that this museum has to address is that it is based around a small industrial unit, in the centre of Amsterdam. It is therefore impossible to allow a large number of people through at any one time and access is very restricted. As a result long queues are inevitable and parts of the museum are unavoidably claustrophobic. There is always the danger, in a small central townhouse that lacks the open spaces of more modern museums, of visitors feeling herded through the museum. Unfortunately, the Anne Frank museum is limited in its ability to offer this, and visitors are confined to a certain route around the museum. Whilst admittedly this claustrophobic style, combined with the infamous three-hour entry queues, may deter some members of the public, the museum is clearly aware of this and works to make the best of it. Quotes from Anne’s diary occupy the walls of the museum, thus as visitors are waiting to filter through the annex, they are given certain themes to contemplate relating to each particular location. These quotes, accompanied by guidebooks presented to each visitor on arrival, turn the limited route of the museum into a chronological journey through Anne’s life. The public are first presented with a brief context of the war, explaining the reasons why the Frank family were forced into hiding. The path of the museum then traces Anne’s time in hiding during the guest’s exploration of the annex, whilst the last exhibits focus largely on the family’s arrest. This restricted layout becomes vital in how guests understand the museum and is effective in truly understanding Anne’s experiences.

In a city steeped with culture and memories of the Second World War, the Anne Frank House stands out as one of the most striking and unique museums in its field. The exhibition immediately captures the atmosphere of this secret space, whilst providing in depth information. Whilst some members of the public may be deterred by its limited lay out and claustrophobic style, the museum is clearly aware of these issues and works to use them to its benefit, by engaging the guests in a chronological journey through Anne’s life. The museum also uses variety of methods to engage the viewer with its historical content. The use of oral history provokes a particularly powerful and emotional reaction, in which guests are encouraged to view historical material from a personal perspective. As a result the museum succeeds in presenting past events in an extremely personal and emotive way to the public, reconnecting emotional reactions to events which can so often be mere historical fact. The importance of reflecting open these events individually is stressed towards the end of the exhibition, encouraging the public to deliberate what Anne Frank’s story truly means to them. It is on rare occasions that museums manage to hold the attention of the public throughout their exhibition, but the Anne Frank House succeeds in doing this in its entirety.

[1] Otto Frank, “Opening Speech of Anne Frank House”, (speech, 3 May 1950, Anne Frank House; Amsterdam).