Why war museums rely on the Holocaust





Holocaust exhibitions are a lot more popular than Monty's tank, and the Imperial War Museum's new one looks like a canny attempt to lure people into its permanent collection

London's Imperial War Museum does have an image problem, I admit. Who goes there? Plenty of men with their sons, obviously. Veterans, nostalgists and military history buffs. But it's not, traditionally, the kind of place you take your girlfriend to if you want to look hip. It is, frankly, quite depressing.

There is only one theme from the museum's designated field of 20th-century warfare that still has cachet. As film-makers have found to their profit, while you may no longer be able to fill cinemas with clunking old military epics like A Bridge Too Far you can still reap acclaim, awards and audiences by reflecting on the Holocaust.

For museums too, Holocaust exhibitions are a lot more popular than Monty's tank. The Imperial War Museum's new exhibition Unspeakable: The Artist as Witness of the Holocaust, which opens September 5, looks like a canny attempt to lure people into its permanent collection of V2s and gas masks.

I know, this sounds a bit cynical. Unspeakable contains pertinent evidence about the worst thing human beings have ever done to each other: paintings by victims who recorded the reality of the camps. However, it throws in an extra element that suggests a crowd-catching populist intent. Alongside the unique testimony of artists who used visual means to bear witness to the Holocaust, the exhibition just can't resist including Darren Almond's bland and pretentious meditations on Auschwitz.

What kind of curator thinks young contemporary artists like Almond have as much to say about the Holocaust as those who witnessed it? Only one obsessed with attracting young sophisticated audiences. Such a choice exposes the exhibition. This is the exploitation of memory, the merchandising of truth.


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