The National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam and the question of ethical displays

Exterior of three-floor theater.

Hollandsche Schouwburg is the former theater used by the Nazis as a deportation center for Jews beginning in 1942.

By Michelle Baker

What are the ethics of displaying images of brutality in the context of war and genocide? What moral issues are raised by using visual materials to publicly expose others’ victimization? These are questions journalists, photographers and scholars often grapple with, but they are questions that can also create uncertainty and conflict in museum spaces.

Such questions are now being debated at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam as it prepares to close in 2020 to transform its current temporary and semi-permanent exhibits into a permanent exhibit scheduled to open in 2022.

The permanent exhibit will use more than 1,000 objects, documents and testimonies the museum possesses, but the question about whether to display photographs of victimization is of topmost salience to exhibit curators.

A temporary installation invites those visiting the exhibit to share their opinions about how the future museum should display—or not display—such images. Individual, private booths show photographs one at a time, and the visitor can hear the opinions of curators, historians, filmmakers and survivors as they share their opinions, often disparate, about whether the image under consideration should be displayed publicly.

Such images include a photograph taken by a Nazi doctor of a young boy whose body shows the effects of tuberculosis-related medical experiments, as well as a photograph taken by U.S. liberators of nude, emaciated men outside of a barrack at Bergen-Belsen.

Questions raised include, “How does the photograph do the subject justice?” “Is the photograph a revictimization?” “Does it serve as evidence of crimes against humanity?” “What is our moral responsibility to the victims in the photographs?” And, “Does the intention and point of view of the photographer influence the meaning of the image?”

According to its website, The National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam seeks to do “justice to the continuity of Jewish life since the war” with the purpose of distinguishing the future permanent exhibit from other Holocaust museums by placing strong emphasis on the consequences of the Holocaust on Jewish community and identity as well as the consequences for the whole of Dutch society. The museum intends to demonstrate how the Holocaust still affects the entire population of the Netherlands.

The permanent exhibit will be housed in two historic locations in the Jewish Cultural Quarter: a building that was once the Reformed Protestant Teachers College, next to the Crèche (daycare) from which 600 Jewish children were rescued, and the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a former Dutch theater that, beginning in 1942, was used as a deportation center to transfer an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Jews to the Westerbork transit camp.

In total, approximately 107,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands, primarily to Auschwitz and Sobibor, where they were murdered. This represented 75 percent of the country’s total Jewish population, the highest percentage of Jews deported from any Western European country. Approximately 30,000 Jews went into hiding throughout the Netherlands, assisted by the Dutch resistance. Two-thirds of those in hiding survived.

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