How many words, how many pictures, how many objects, does it take to tell the story of both the defining event of the 20th century and that bloody century’s greatest crime? How many square metres would all that fill up?
The answer is infinite, of course. And even though the new galleries dedicated to the second world war and the Holocaust at the Imperial War Museum in London occupy more than 3,000 square metres, they somehow acknowledge the impossibility of their task. The exhibit reminds you at every turn that what you are seeing is the tiniest glimpse of an enormous whole, one that only seems to loom larger the further away we become.
So the Holocaust gallery opens with a room that depicts Jewish life across Europe in the years before Nazism, through photographs and sound – including laughter – and through a handful of life-sized “totems”, slim glass pillars bearing the image and story of named individuals. The effect is powerful: the instant you connect with this child from Germany or that man from Poland, feeling their loss, you are reminded that they were only drops in an ocean of blood. A similar, though inverse, reaction comes at the end of the exhibit, courtesy of a simple graphic that shows quite how small was the fraction of Nazi murderers who ever faced justice for their crimes.
IWM London is trumpeting the fact that this £30.7m project makes it the first museum in the world to contain both the second world war and Shoah narratives under a single roof. I confess that, ahead of time, that had me worried. Of course, the two events were concurrent and related. But they were also distinct. The Nazis’ Jewish victims were not casualties of war. They were targeted for an enterprise without precedent in human history: the industrialised elimination of an entire people.
I’m relieved to say that the museum has done nothing to blur that distinction, granting each topic a floor to itself. But there are points of connection. One of the Nazis’ flying V1 bombs is suspended from the ceiling and visible from both levels. Which is apt, because the V1 was a weapon of war built with Jewish slave labour.
Both exhibits benefit from similarly shrewd decisions. The sections on Britain are at pains to show the range of people who fought or died or suffered for this country. We see the photo album collected by Thomas Andi, a Nigerian seaman who was part of the British merchant navy and who became a prisoner of war. There are images of sappers from Jamaica, troops from Bombay and a Sikh family sheltering from an air raid. As you take in those images, you can hear a propaganda tune – We March, March, We March to Victory – aimed at West Indians, rendered as a calypso.
The Holocaust gallery is not dark and brooding but brightly lit. Which is unexpected but right: the Nazis persecuted the Jews in daylight. Plenty of people saw it clearly enough. A room dedicated to the killing places, including the sites of mass shootings, includes huge screens playing contemporary footage of what is now bucolic scenery. The trees are in bloom, the birds are singing. The echo is of Claude Lanzmann’s documentary masterpiece Shoah, with its lingering shots of the Polish countryside. The point is that the Holocaust did not take place on another planet and it does not exist in some black-and-white past. It is part of our present.
Much is aimed at visiting schoolchildren, and that too is right. There is a Nazi textbook on display, along with wartime toys – among them a jigsaw with a resonance for our own times. It’s called The Puzzle of Europe, inviting players to “Put Europe Together Again!” There’s a neat, interactive piece that asks the user to compose a newspaper front page for the evacuation from Dunkirk. What should the headline be? The options allow you to pick one permutation from “Trapped/Beaten/Brave army saved/escapes/driven from France.”
Not all of it works. Some will find the mood-setting, ambient music distracting. There is a re-creation of a blitz-era British house, but inside are items of transparently 21st-century provenance: the wallpaper has a pattern based on archive family photos and the framed, embroidered samplers contain quotations obviously chosen with hindsight. Such inauthenticity can be jarring, especially when the genuine article is all around. There’s no need for fake fried eggs on a mocked-up plate when you have an original tin of National Dried Milk, produced by the Ministry of Food.
And, inevitably, there is too much to take in. How could it be otherwise, when a single collection has to cover the war in the Philippines, the fate of the Roma and the triangular relationship of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt? Every display case nods to a theme that could fill an entire museum on its own. Every story, sketched in a few words, could be a book. In one glass case rests a pair of callipers, used by “racial scientists” to measure the diameter of the skull and the dimensions of the nose of those deemed inferior. There is an image from the Nazi-organised Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937, which was meant to incite revulsion but proved popular with the German public. There is a Yiddish typewriter. Of course, it’s too much to absorb – because too much history happened in those few, bloody years.
Is it definitive? The last word on those events? No, because there can never be a last word. But it is a stimulating, sensitive and humane exhibition – one that is needed more now, perhaps, than ever.
From 20 October at the Imperial War Museum London.