Exhibiting the Holocaust in the Immediate Postwar Period: Histories, Practices and Politics

Rachel Perry's picture
Type: 
Call for Papers
Date: 
September 2, 2021
Location: 
Israel
Subject Fields: 
Art, Art History & Visual Studies, European History / Studies, Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies, Jewish History / Studies, Public History

Exhibitions were a crucial medium of Holocaust memory in the immediate postwar period. Between 1944-1950, hundreds of exhibitions were mounted across war torn Europe and the United States that sought to tell the story of World War II, Nazi Crimes and the Holocaust. Already on the day after liberation, the process of “museumification” was initiated. Political prisoners and Allied soldiers organized impromptu site-specific exhibits in the concentration and extermination camps. Small, low tech, DIY exhibitions were mounted in the Displaced Persons camps and Historical Commissions by Jewish survivors. Impressive blockbusters sponsored by governmental ministries and international organizations, such as the United Nations War Crimes Commission, opened in museums across Europe. Varying in their budgets, resources, tone, media, and function, these exhibitions were intended to convince and convict but also to inform, educate, and commemorate. Whether meticulously planned and generously funded or makeshift and improvised, they offered their visitors a different “way of seeing” and interpreting the violence, atrocity, and human rights abuses of the recent past.

Exhibitions not only illustrate history, they also shape it. Despite their central role in shaping our understanding and representation of Nazi crimes and victim experiences, these early postwar exhibitions have received little scholarly attention to date. Yet their impact rivals the media of monuments, photography and film, cutting across national and political lines and belying the “Myth of Silence” regarding the postwar period that David Cesarani so persuasively debunked. Reconstructing these exhibition histories can tell us a great deal about how different nations, communities, and individuals chose to remember, and what they privileged and understood about the war. It can help us construct a historiography of Holocaust representation, tracing the canonization of certain practices and images, as well as certain modes of presentation. This special issue hopes to offer a more nuanced understanding of exhibitions as a neglected but important medium of early Holocaust memory.

We invite Holocaust and genocide scholars, art historians, curators, museologists, and cultural researchers from a variety of disciplines to consider specific case studies or comparative studies as well as larger theoretical and methodological issues. We welcome papers that analyze exhibition design and content, as well as the social and political discourses underpinning them and their reception.

Contributions can include but are not limited to the following topics:

  • Exhibitions as cultural diplomacy: network and site of transnational exchange and circulation of information.
  • Exhibitions as identity building in national narratives/ the politicization of exhibitions: How were they shaped by political needs to construct and bind national and communal identities after the war and later during the Cold War by Communist organizations such as the FNDIRP and international camp survivor committees?
  • Exhibitions as disciplinary pedagogy: How did exhibitions participate in the Allies’ wider denazification program and prepare the ground for the prosecution of war crimes?
  • Exhibitions as sites for commemorative practices and rituals.
  • Universalist/Particularist interpretations: Was the Jewish tragedy marginalized in these exhibitions? Where, when, and under what circumstances was it foregrounded?
  • How were various media deployed − objects, images, texts and technologies − and to what end? (photographic reproduction, graphs, artwork, sculpture, maps and statistics, panoramic film theaters) What role did photographic reproduction, artwork, film and material culture (authentic artifacts and replicas, physical remains, dioramas and costumed mannequins) play?
  • What were the curatorial strategies and modes of presentation (aestheticization, sacralization, redemption)? What tone was struck (moralizing, educational, didactic or prurient)? How did curators use lighting (natural and artificial), spatial layout, presentation of objects, auditory stimuli, textual support (informational labels and signage), and directed itineraries?
  • What symbols and iconography prevailed in the exhibitions and their promotional material (ephemera such as posters, publications, guidebooks, postcards, etc.)?
  • These exhibitions predate the “age of testimony”; where and how was the victim’s voice inserted and privileged through the use of testimonies, letters and personal mementos?
Contact Info: 

Dr. Rachel Perry, Weiss Livnat International Program in Holocaust Studies, University of Haifa: perryrub@bezeqint.net and Dr. Agata Pietrasik, a.pietrasik@wp.pl.

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