Curatorial challenges
“The meeting at Wannsee and the murder of European Jews”

by Babette Quinkert and Katharina Zeiher 

Translated excerpt from the German publication: Elke Gryglewski/Hans-Christian Jasch/David Zolldan (Hrsg.): Design für Alle. Standard? Experiment? Notwendigkeit? Das Making of zur 3. Dauerausstellung. Berlin: Metropol, 2021. p. 43-52.

© GHWK Berlin
Map of the exhibition

For the conceptual work on the new permanent exhibition at the House of the Wannsee Conference, the aim was to create a narrative that, given the demand for accessibility and a “Design for All” approach, would be as low-threshold and comprehensible as possible for both individual visitors and participants in the Memorial Site’s educational programmes. We – the team of curators – started out with five questions, which we asked from the visitor’s point of view: Where am I? What happened here? Why is this relevant? What does it have to do with me? As well as: What awaits me in the exhibition?

The content of the new permanent exhibition focuses on the meeting at Wannsee and how it fits into the process of exclusion, persecution and murder of European Jews. An important goal of the exhibition is to make it clear that at the time of the meeting in January 1942, mass murder had already been underway for months. To this end, the focus will be on the involvement of individuals and institutions in these crimes.

A new narrative

A particular curatorial challenge was, on the one hand, to take post-war history into account and, on the other hand, to enable the educational staff, in view of the often very high number of visitors, to start guided tours from very different points in future and therefore work in as many rooms as possible with exhibits from the National Socialist period. For this reason, we decided against a chronological tour in favour of combining chronological and thematic as well as in-depth narrative strands oriented to the architecture of the building.

The right half of the house, which comprises four thematic rooms, now offers a compact overview of the evolution of persecution and murder policy until 1945. Starting with The Invitation (Room 1), the prehistory of the meeting at Wannsee is told, taking into account political and ideological developments before 1933 (Room 2). After the visitors have studied the meeting itself and the surviving minutes (Room 3), this is followed by the development up to the end of the war in 1945, with an outlook on the situation of the survivors after the war (Room 4). The role of the institutions or persons who took part in the meeting at Wannsee is told in an integrated way in this first part of the exhibition.

In the left half of the house, visitors can then delve deeper into aspects concerned with collaborating in crime. The starting point for the narrative here is the “Final Solution File”, in which the minutes of the Wannsee meeting were found after the war (Room 5). Two large thematic rooms then deal with the role of institutions (Room 6). The involvement of society and individuals is also examined (Room 7). Furthermore, both rooms shed light on how involvement in crimes was dealt with in the post-war period. Such historical cross-sections can be used as a starting point for guided tours aimed at specific professional groups, such as administrative employees, police officers or members of the armed forces. Finally, visitors can familiarise themselves with the debates about the Wannsee Conference after 1945 and the efforts to create a place of remembrance (Room 8), before the exhibition ends with a reference to the present (Room 9).

Zu sehen ist die räumliche Visualisierung eines Kubus. Dieser ist zu anthrazit-farben und oben mit einem grünen Blech umrahmt. In die Ansichtsfläche des Kubus oben ist ein fotografisches Exponat platziert.
© Illustration: Franke /Steinert
Cubes dealing with the history of the house

Based on the question “Where am I?”, we have decided not to tell the story of the place in isolation, but to integrate it into the exhibition: a wall graphic in the entrance area and six cubes, which differ in colour from the rest of the exhibition furniture, deal with the origins of the house, which was built as a factory owner's villa and later used as a guest house for the police and SS, accommodation for the Allies, educational institute as well as school hostel for a working-class district in West Berlin. Other cubes also deal with the dining hall and the villa’s surroundings during National Socialism.

Depicting involvement

One focus of the exhibition narrative is the question of the role played by the institutions and individuals that participated in the meeting at Wannsee during the persecution and murder of European Jews. At the same time, it is made clear that they were not the only ones, but that a multitude of other German, but also European participants were also involved. In order to convey this complex topic in a low-threshold manner, we have formed two conceptual groups that structure the narrative: Institutions and Crime complexes.

Room 2: wall segment with the keyword "definition"
© GHWK Berlin
Room 2: wall segment with the keyword "definition"
Room 2: pull-out panels for the category "Ministries", here Ministry for the Interior, Wilhelm Stuckart
© GHWK Berlin
Room 2: pull-out panels for the category "Ministries", here Ministry for the Interior, Wilhelm Stuckart

The institutions represented at Wannsee are assigned to four categories: SS and Police, Ministries, Party and Administration of Occupied Territories. In addition, the Wehrmacht, business and foreign allies are also identified. The second conceptual group comprises the crime complexes exclusion, expulsion, definition, robbery, forced labour, deportation and murder.

The two conceptual groups are introduced in Room 2, where the prehistory of the meeting at Wannsee is told. The role of the participants and their institutions in the early policy of persecution and murder is recounted here using pull-out panels.

The participants are introduced in more detail when focusing on the meeting itself (Room 3). Here we have designed an exhibition element that highlights their institutional affiliation and, at the same time, visualises their hierarchical position, i.e. their relationships in terms of superiority and subordination.

A similar exhibition element can be found in the “Criminal Institutions” display area in Room 6. Here, the focus is on the concrete involvement of the participants in the murder programme. Institutional involvement in the crimes is presented in detail in this room in a panel display that highlights the conceptual groups mentioned above. Concrete examples make it clear that beyond the institutions involved in the Wannsee meeting, other authorities and ministries, but also the Wehrmacht, business and foreign allies were closely involved in the crimes.

In terms of society’s participation and approach after 1945 (Room 7), we also worked with conceptual groups that invoke the respective variety of individual behaviours: looking away, profiting, knowing, participating and murdering, and/or reinterpreting, denying, admonishing, repressing, accusing and integrating.

© GHWK Berlin, Thomas Bruns
Room 7, word clouds: conceptual groups that invoke the respective variety of individual behaviours

Despite the reduction in exhibits and texts, which was necessary to offer a scope of exhibition content that was comprehensible for individual visitors, it was important to create a good basis for the work provided by the GHWK’s education department with professional groups. Large screens are therefore embedded in the exhibition narrative, on which in-depth digital content, for example occupation-specific elements, can be called up during guided tours.

Comprehensible, multi-perspective narration

The goal of achieving a low-threshold narrative was also pursued in the presentation of exhibits and in text production. In doing so, the narrative as a whole, but also within the individual rooms, was reduced to its most important aspects. Exhibits such as law gazettes, orders, posters, etc. are shown as facsimiles, books are displayed as originals. Keyword-like headings for individual exhibit groups facilitate orientation. Digital content presented in screens is made accessible via questions, such as: “Who are the perpetrators?” All exhibits offer a short commentary text, enabling visitors to classify what they have seen and thus also to question it. With 350 characters each, exhibit comments are kept short, just like the room and theme texts, which feature 600 and 500 characters respectively.

The aim was to write the exhibition texts in simple/clear language. In order to ensure that the texts were comprehensible and easy to understand for visitors, we used the font and text fields defined by the graphic designer as a basis for text production. This enabled us to take line lengths and line breaks into account. Due to the complexity of the topic and the short text lengths, however, we also came up against limits with regard to simple/clear language. For example, we did not always succeed in replacing technical terms, such as pogrom or ghetto.

An important basic principle for our curatorial work is the multi-perspective approach. The new permanent exhibition draws on the perspectives of German and European perpetrators and collaborators, as well as those of the Allies and the persecuted themselves. Precisely because the main theme of the exhibition in the House of the Wannsee Conference focuses on the institutional “perpetrator’s point of view”, it was necessary to convey what this supposedly abstract and bureaucratic action meant for those affected, and how it was reflected in their concrete experience.

© Darja Preuss und Silas Bahr
Listening station in room 8: Joseph Wulf

The central element for this is provided by the orange-framed listening stations that comprise the “Personalised Narrative”.  The 12 audio stations, some of which are accompanied by annotated exhibits, form a narrative thread running through the entire exhibition. In our selection, diversity was important to us, not only in terms of the gender of the individuals, but also in terms of their origin, age, nationality as well as their persecution and fate. This also challenges supposedly established truths and hegemonic views. In addition, those affected are not presented exclusively as defenceless victims, but as active individuals who sought ways to influence their environment and their situation. Some staff members from the education department took the view that several perspectives should be told at each point or exhibit in the exhibition. From our point of view, this was not feasible given the topic of the exhibition and the spatial conditions.

Showing the diversity of participants and forms of involvement was also a criterion in selecting the photos. For example, we looked for pictures that not only show different groups of perpetrators and persecuted, but also bystanders. Some photos also show explicit violence. This was another aspect that the curators and staff from the education department discussed, sometimes heatedly. In our opinion, an exhibition that is supposed to convey the mass murder of European Jews cannot dispense with violent images. Otherwise, there would be a danger of supporting the historically false image of a “clean” administrative murder, and thus an image with which the perpetrators themselves legitimised their actions. Instead of not showing violence, we have instead made sure that such photos are used sparingly and consciously. In our opinion, it is inadmissible to display violent images more often than absolutely necessary or to use them strategically to unsettle visitors. It is also necessary to avoid selecting photos on which the victims are depicted in degrading situations in ways that degrade them once again through the very manner of presentation. Individual staff members from the education department generally pleaded, however, against showing violence or dead bodies. And the question as to which images are acceptable for visitors, or which images once again degrade the victims, was also answered differently.

Lessons learned

In the course of the project, we often had to balance the interests of individual visitors with the needs of our educational work with groups. Overall, we are convinced that taking a “Design for All” approach is a rewarding and enriching experience for all those involved in such projects – even if this term, according to our findings, describes an ideal state that often cannot be achieved in practice. Nevertheless, it should remain our goal to strive for it.