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Survivor Photos in a Museum Collection

Karen Becher from the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, discusses the role of private photos of Holocaust survivors in the museum's collection.
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Hi, I’m Karen Becher, senior educator at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum. I work a lot with the collections in the Exhibition Centre Education programmes. In this short film, I’d like to reflect a little bit on the Jewish photos in our collections and how they relate to our mission. You’ve already heard from Louise about the collections and the special role of survivor testimony within them. It’s the survivor perspective, which is an important corrective to the official documents which, were, of course, created by the perpetrators. The same applies to photos. Like most Holocaust museums, we have some Nazi photographs in our exhibition.
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We try to counterbalance this by drawing attention to photographs that were taken by the victims, in other words, those who were persecuted by the Nazis. Building a collection of such alternative photos isn’t easy. Private photos come to us mostly from individuals, from Holocaust survivors who we work with right here at the Centre in our programmes. The collection has grown over the years. In total, we have about 150 Holocaust survivors in our community. Unfortunately, some of them have passed away since they so kindly gave us their testimony and their artefacts. Others have given us extensive collections of photos, as well as items such as what you see behind me.
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But more often, survivors may only have one or two photos, a photo or two that they perhaps brought with them when they came on the Kindertransport journey to the UK– photos of a family that they had to leave behind in Nazi-occupied Europe. For us, to obtain a photographic collection from a Holocaust survivor is an honour and a privilege. For many survivors, this can be the last remaining object that they have to remind them of their family. To entrust these memories to us as a museum is a thoughtful and selfless act. Survivors will have asked themselves many questions before handing over these items. Questions such as, does it belong with my family?
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Or what can a museum do with the photographs that my family can’t? And also, will anybody really be interested in essentially what is my family history? Museums like ours have a duty and care to work with sensitivity with photos. Working with each photo, when this is possible, it provides the context and the provenance, which is necessary for adding dimension to the story that the photograph tells. When we acquire them, it’s with the intention to display them or to use them within our educational programmes. Most private photos we receive from survivors are connected to their immediate families. This could be of people, of pets, of houses, their gardens, their vehicles, and other things that are very, very personal to them.
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Sometimes, we gain insight of the extended families, for example, through a photograph of a grandparent, which tells us then a far greater story beyond that of just the survivor themselves. These photos all tend to sit in the museum’s pre-war life collections. We also have photos that document flight and the arrival in the UK. You heard about one such photo in a previous learning step by James and Vicki. It is the responsibility of the museum to help people to engage with these photos and to learn about the people that they see in these photos. This is, of course, easier if we can speak to the survivors directly about the photos.
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When we acquire photos with limited or no provenance, we must ensure that further research is carried out to assure that we are telling the story as faithfully as we possibly can. Once we are certain that we have acquired as much information as we possibly can about a photographic collection, the next step is to consider the ways that we can maximise the educational potential of these collections. Considering how an audience perceives and reacts to a collection is always key, but with photos, even more so. Photos presents the viewer with a deeply intimate view into a particular life.
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And it is really critical, therefore, that when we place these photos in our galleries, we do this, exercising a lot of sensitivity and care. When studying the Holocaust, you will encounter lots of facts and numbers. This is unavoidable to really appreciate the importance of the Holocaust. You have to also look at the scale of what happened. When a survivor’s photos accompany the narrative, this opens up a completely new dimension. Instead of just being statistics, they become real individuals, and this is incredibly important for our visitors here at the museum. For this step’s discussion, do you think that museums such as ours should use the private photos donated by survivors?
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Have you perhaps seen such photos somewhere else, perhaps in a book or in another museum or maybe in a documentary? And if so, how did it make you feel? Please join in the conversation. And one final question, what more can museums like ours do with photos?

Karen Becher is a Senior Educator at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum. In this short film, she talks you through some examples of private photos of Holocaust survivors in the museum’s collection, and considers what role they play as part of the museum’s mission.

In the discussion step, we would love to hear your views of the questions Karen raises at the end. Should museum use personal photo collections? If so, how can they best be used? And have you seen examples of a meaningful use of such images elsewhere that you may want to share?

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Photographing the Holocaust

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