Educational standards and curatorial rules. On synthesising fundamental parameters for the new permanent exhibition

by Elke Gryglewski

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. 29-39.

© GHWK Berlin
Book "Du bist sofort im Bilde"

The Memorial and Educational Site is one of the few so called large-scale memorial centres that either have no separate research and education departments or have always had them as connected units. Since its establishment in 1992, the education department researched the necessary sources in the archives for its seminars with diverse partners and target groups, and prepared them for teaching purposes. Research was always linked to education and was conducted primarily with the aim of making a relevant contribution to confronting National Socialism. In view of this, it is not surprising that the Memorial Site’s positioning in terms of content is derived and defined nationally and internationally from the educational work. Accordingly, the department was also involved in the process for developing the new permanent exhibition with regard to key aspects concerning standards in memorial education.

Historical focus of the exhibition narrative

What should be the focus of an exhibition that is being developed with the aim of making the core themes of the memorial site accessible to the public while offering significantly less content? This question posed the first major challenge in developing the exhibition narrative. Whilst from a curatorial point of view the so-called Wannsee Conference stands for systematic mass murder, which should be presented in depth together with its post-war history, from an educational point of view the path to the meeting on 20 January 1942 is the relevant thematic complex that needs to be told. On the one hand, this makes it easier for visitors to comprehend the complexity of the decision to commit systematic mass murder and to counter the often pre-assumed notion of a meeting with decision-making character. On the other hand, by addressing measures preceding persecution, such as the process of exclusion through labelling people as “others”, expropriation, forcible deportation and concentration, appropriate value standards can be (re)established. In the face of systematic mass murder, these preceding events threaten to pale into insignificance, to be less “bad”. In learning processes, it is important to make it clear that the very act of displacement from public life should be unacceptable. In addition, there is the important realisation of where supposedly minor political decisions can lead in the long term. Memorials are places in which visitors can acquire in-depth knowledge. Therefore, from the point of view of the education department, educational content should comprise at least two-thirds on the history of National Socialist era and one-third on presenting the aftermath. The compromise reached after lengthy discussions led to a possibly unusual exhibition narrative that includes provision for individual visitors and provision for guided tours. While individual visitors usually choose the chronological tour beginning with Room 0 for their visit, the guided tours for groups often start in the second part of the exhibition and use so-called flex panels in Room 6 to discuss in detail the stages of persecution from 1933 to 1939.

Dealing with objects

Numerous visitors ask about the furniture in the guest house, some would like a reconstruction of the meeting situation. We regularly counter this demand by saying that the meeting situation is not known, the few remaining pieces of furniture in the guest house were presumably stolen after the war, and that critically reflexive historical education must deal with this emptiness in a proactive way. The available objects are the building itself and the minutes of the meeting. The ambivalence of embedding these objects within the history of the Jews’ persecution in Europe, which was realised far away from idyllic Wannsee, forms part of the staff’s day-to-day educational activities. Over the years, this has led to the – often unspoken – consensus not to present any three-dimensional objects in the exhibitions.

The objects in the new exhibition are books and facsimile documents. With the exception of the books in the room on the building’s history, the books presented are National Socialist literature. This leads to a special challenge with regard to the question of multi-perspectivity. The graphically detailed “repatriations” of ethnic Germans from the East, using the vocabulary of Konrad Meyer, attract just as much attention as the graphic explanation of the Nuremberg Race Laws in Max Eichler’s “Du bist sofort im Bilde”.

This offers visitors the opportunity to delve deeper into the perspective and logic of the perpetrators – which makes sense at this specific location. Only the focussed engagement with the perpetrators’ and their followers’ way of thinking makes it possible to comprehend that their actions are not inexplicable. At the same time, we have been discussing for years at what point and in what way our addressees can be released from this logic again, or how it can and must be broken. Are the photos presented in the exhibition, which show Polish civilians being shot in Leszno, and the descriptions of a Jewish woman from Włocławek sufficient for this?

The second category of exhibits comprises documents that can develop an aura of their own due to the excellent quality of the facsimiles and the way they are presented. This is particularly evident with sources that have a special impact due to their design or authorship. The commentary on the Nuremberg Race Laws, for example, appears rather inconspicuous and often goes unnoticed next to the aforementioned book on display. A frontispiece from 1940 with Hitler’s so-called prophecy, on the other hand, holds a particular allure through its illumination, so that we have to ask ourselves whether we are not thereby reinforcing the sense of “Hitlerisation” shared by many guests. This is counter-productive given the effort to make clear to visitors that the systematic mass murder would not have been possible without the willing participation of all the professions, institutions and large sections of society presented in the exhibition.


The dilemma between the need to encourage a discussion of the perpetrators’ perspective through a focused presentation on the one hand, and the demand to tell history from multiple perspectives on the other, continuously accompanied the development of the new exhibition. Are 13 biographical approaches via audio stations enough to adequately include the perspective of the persecuted at a “Täterort”, a location associated with the perpetrators? Or do the reports that can be heard reduce the persecuted to extras who “merely” suffer the crimes that were conceived, organised and carried out by the perpetrators? In contrast, some colleagues wanted to present more examples, such as the story about the so-called April Boycott, in which Richard Stern, the Jewish owner of a shop that was affected by the SA’s terrorist measures, took an active role in the protest. Should, for example, a facsimile of Victor Klemperer’s diary entry on the specific event have been added at one point or another? The discussion continues to accompany us even after the opening of the exhibition. This fact is reflected in the decision made after the opening to offer a complementary screen on the preservation of evidence, with photos covertly taken by the Sonderkommando (special unit) in Auschwitz-Birkenau and from the Oneg Shabbat Archive.

Portraying violence

Experiences with the first permanent exhibition in the building and with exhibitions at other memorial sites showed that depictions of violence are not suitable for evoking empathy among the public. Young people reacted insecurely, which can express itself in giggles, adults were often emotionally overwhelmed or concerned that these photos – which degrade the victims time and again through the gazes of the guests – were exhibited at all.

Das schwarz-weiß Foto zeigt Frauen und Kinder vor ihrer Erschießung. Sie schauen aus quadratischen Fenstern mit Holzrahmen. Das Foto wurde 1941 in Swiahel in der Westukraine aufgenommen.
© Foto: Privat
Photo depicted on a panel in the 2nd permanent exhibition. There was an indication that the photo was taken by a Wehrmacht soldier, who after the war added the following note on the back: "They are waiting for their death. Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian women and children (from infants to the elderly) are locked up in a greenhouse because the pits that had been dug were insufficient for the many shootings. Their turn came the next day."

And so, in the second permanent exhibition, these explicit depictions of brutality were dispensed with altogether. Images were chosen that could be very touching in their subtlety.

However, quick, superficial visits to the exhibition were not enough to perceive these sources. And so, given the photos and films of contemporary acts of violence that can be consumed via social media and television, for many visitors the Nazi past seemed less visually powerful and thus less terrible in comparison. The team therefore agreed that the new exhibition would not be able to dispense with depictions of violence. But where are the boundaries of what is needed as evidence, beyond which the dignity of those affected is (once again) violated? Are the persecuted more likely to have their dignity violated if we use photos that document them lying on the ground after being shot? Or is this rather the case if we use another photo from the same series in which the victims are brought to the execution site with their hands raised, i.e. one that presents the violence more subtly?

These difficult discussions made it clear that the perception of violent crime committed during National Socialism – and presumably also in other contexts – is individual and cannot be generalised.

In this situation, the view of the academic advisory board was also an important corrective factor. Advisory board members whose family members had been among those persecuted and murdered requested that three photos be removed from screens even before the exhibition opened.

The resulting exhibition has found sensible compromises to the aforementioned challenges in many places, which will continue to occupy us in future. The chosen design, including the generous technical possibilities, offers a good basis for further development and, if necessary, additions/changes to the content. We are therefore looking forward to a continued exchange with colleagues on the issues raised.