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the guide to historical resources • Issue 7: The Holocaust •

The Holocaust


Imperial War Museum: supporting students with different learning needs

by Paul Salmons
Holocaust Education Co-ordinator
Website: IWM education pages

Located in Britain's national museum of twentieth-century conflict, Europe's largest permanent exhibition on the Holocaust opened at the Imperial War Museum in June 2000 to wide acclaim, and was Specially Commended in the European Museum of the Year Award 2003.

Sober and restrained in tone, the exhibition makes much of the material evidence of the Holocaust available to the British public for the first time: a pair of callipers used by Nazi scientists to determine 'race' by the size and shape of people's skulls; a hand cart for carrying the dead in the Warsaw ghetto; a cattle wagon used on the Belgian railways; clandestine photographs taken by prisoners inside Auschwitz II-Birkenau; newly discovered and previously unseen film footage of Jewish children in hiding.

The Holocaust is a compulsory subject on the National Curriculum in Key Stage 3 history, but is also studied at GCSE and AS/A2. In addition, many teachers of Religious Studies, English, Citizenship and other disciplines choose to explore this subject with their students. Some 25,000 young people visit the Holocaust Exhibition with their schools each year, and the response from teachers and students alike has been overwhelmingly positive. One student commented:

What I have learned in school has nothing on what I have seen, read and heard. It has shocked me beyond belief because it is the truth. I am 14, I mean teenagers like me were being persecuted, innocent teenagers at that. For this I will never forget.

While the exhibition offers a comprehensive account of the Holocaust, it is hoped that schools will not see a visit to the Museum alone as being sufficient for the study of this complex history. The visit should sit within a broader scheme of work, and careful pre-visit and follow-up work is essential. All groups are sent a pre-visit film, called The Way We Lived, to help them with preparatory work in the classroom. A cross-curricular resource pack, Reflections, and a student's guide to the Holocaust, Torn Apart, are also available.

A dedicated education service has been developed to support students and teachers visiting the Holocaust Exhibition. Orientation and feedback sessions led by trained Holocaust educators help prepare students for the exhibition and provide time and space for reflection afterwards.

A series of audio tours are available, unique in the degree to which they support different learning needs. Separate tours have been developed for Year 9, GCSE and AS, for students with moderate learning difficulties, A2 level students, and students who are blind or partially sighted. These audio guides help young people to navigate what can otherwise be an overwhelming exhibition, pacing them through the displays, pausing at the most moving and interesting artefacts, each one helping to develop the narrative and move the student on in their knowledge and understanding. Survivor testimony highlights the personal stories behind the statistics, ensuring that victims are seen not as a faceless mass, but as real people. One visitor commented:

The small photos and biographies are so touching. At the thought of millions in mass graves the human mind steps back, unable to take it all in. But to focus on one person, this woman or that child, hits you very very hard.

The use of audio guides is a new departure for the Imperial War Museum, but one that has proved enormously successful in supporting learning within the Holocaust Exhibition. One teacher remarked: 'It is this facility which enhances all the teaching that has gone on before - it actually encouraged my students to reflect, pause, take time to investigate.'

One of the advantages of audio guide technology is being able to respond to different visitors' needs. Year 9 pupils experience the exhibition differently from many older students; GCSE and AS-level students are encouraged to access layers of further information on their tour, going deeper into the themes and issues raised by the Holocaust. The new tour for A2 students goes further still, drawing the listener into a series of issues aimed at challenging preconceived ideas and engaging students with key historical debates. These include:

  • allowing students to see the different kinds of choices facing victims, perpetrators and rescuers, avoiding simplistic judgements, and placing actions and decisions in the context of their time;
  • exploring the many different types of evidence used to discover the past and the problems this evidence can sometimes pose, such as seeing the victims 'through the eyes of their persecutors' in the photographs taken by German soldiers;
  • challenging preconceived ideas about the passivity of the victims and encouraging students to think about what constitutes 'resistance' in such extreme circumstances.

These themes are revisited throughout the tour in order to reinforce concepts and to draw out the complexity of this history. They mark a progression from the mainly narrative account given in previous tours, and students are encouraged to engage in these debates, since they are posed as a series of historical questions. At the same time, intensely moving personal stories and survivors' testimony ensure that the human story is not overwhelmed by historical analysis.

The challenge in producing tours for the visually impaired has been to go beyond the historical significance of artefacts, photographs and other evidence, and to provide a vivid image of the displays through the descriptions on the audio guides and the provision of tactile objects. Replicas of some of the most important artefacts have been built into the fabric of the exhibition for visually impaired visitors to handle. The new tours guide the visitor through the exhibition, pausing to allow exhibits to be touched.

The difference that audio guides and tactile objects can make to the experience of a visually impaired visitor is in some ways immeasurable. One adult visitor commented:

I've never spent so long viewing a single exhibition, and when I say 'viewing' as a totally blind person then it means something rather extraordinary. I actually felt I'd experienced the Holocaust Exhibition directly, which is rare if not a first!

The tour for students with learning difficulties also makes use of these tactile objects to provide opportunities for kinaesthetic and experiential learning activities. Its more flexible structure allows teachers to build a visit more closely geared to their students' particular needs, and to tailor the length of the tour to match their students' levels of concentration.

Original artefacts are at the heart of the exhibition, so the orientation sessions are intended to help young people appreciate the value of artefacts as historical evidence. The intention is to show that objects can give a different perspective on the past than other sources such as photographs, documents and film; that even everyday objects people owned, made and used can help us to see the past differently.

Students acquire skills of how to 'read' objects and how to make deductions about the past from historical artefacts. They are sensitised to the emotional resonance of artefacts and the power of objects to 'carry' memory and to convey meaning.

triangle (6K)

I conceived this diagram to help students access the lower and higher order thinking skills used in looking at and interpreting historical artefacts. When visiting a gallery most people, most of the time, tend consciously to employ the first two stages of thinking about the artefacts they encounter - they identify the object, and they discover where it fits into the overall narrative structure. By making this process explicit, students are encouraged to consider why an object has been collected by the museum, why it is displayed in this showcase, at this particular point in the exhibition, how it relates to other objects and photographs in the same area and how it both builds upon what has already been displayed and informs our understanding of later parts of the exhibition. In short, how does each artefact move us on in our knowledge and understanding of the past?

But the purpose is to go beyond seeing artefacts as individual units within a broader narrative and to ask what deeper layers of meaning do they reveal? Why do the artefacts touch us, what themes do they represent, what do they stand for, and what issues do they raise?

A workshop for sixth formers, called Touching the Past, develops these ideas further. Students are asked to use replicas of eight of the artefacts displayed in the museum to curate a new exhibition about the Holocaust. Through discussion and debate this activity allows students to explore how history emerges from the evidence, how historical narratives are constructed, and how interpretations depend in part upon the interests and values of the historian.

Some of the issues raised may be exemplified by considering one of the objects - a small clockwork bear owned by Paul Sondhoff, a Jewish child from Vienna hidden by his piano teacher.

Such a moving artefact and the personal story of this one child help to give a 'voice' to the victims, to remind the visitor of the lives of individual people turned upside down and to consider how they responded to Nazi persecution. But a different use of the same object may be to examine the dilemmas of the rescuers, who every day had to decide whether or not to continue risking their lives to help those in hiding; and to raise the question of why more people didn't help their Jewish neighbours.

However, many groups decide to use this object to tell the story of children murdered in the gas chambers; they locate it as one of the possessions brought to the death camps by the victims. Clearly this is an important and moving part of the 'story' the students are trying to tell, but it is not true of this particular object. Such an approach raises key historical and museological questions about how evidence is used: should artefacts be employed merely to illustrate a theme or event that the historian wants to explore, or is there more integrity in staying true to the actual story of the object itself? Is it permissible to manipulate sources to serve the narrative, or should students follow the museum's own purist line of respect for the historical method: staying true to the particular story of each artefact, allowing the object itself to 'speak', and the narrative to emerge out of the evidence?

That the selection and deployment of evidence can lead to different interpretations of the past, with different nuances, emphases and meaning raises questions such as: are all interpretations equally valid, and from what does this validity derive? This is especially pertinent when dealing with a history and memory that is under attack for ideological motives, in the shape of Holocaust denial masquerading as historical 'revisionism'. This may help young people to understand not only the events that they are studying but also the nature of history as an academic discipline, and equip them with tools to weigh the relative merits of alternative versions of the past.

Many students have a strong emotional reaction to the objects, even though they know that they are replicas. This allows us to explore the relationship between the observer and the object by asking what are the fundamental differences (if any) between looking at genuine artefacts and looking at exact replicas that are indistinguishable from the original? Some feel that if there are no discernible material differences between the objects, then the artefact and the replica are essentially interchangeable. But others argue that this neglects the 'aura' that comes from a genuine artefact. The replica clockwork bear that students handle in this workshop was never held by Paul Sondhoff during his years in hiding. It never gave him comfort and was never touched by his tears. It was never loved. To see that clockwork bear, they need to visit the Holocaust Exhibition.

Yellow star

Yellow star that the Jews in the Third Reich were forced to wear.

Image copyright the Imperial War Museum.

Clockwork bear

The clockwork bear owned by Paul Sondhoff, a Jewish child from Vienna.

Image copyright the Imperial War Museum.

Larger image (437k)