Concept & design
The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation has worked intensely with Holzer Kobler Architekturen, Zurich/Berlin to design the new permanent exhibition with immediate reference to the historical source material. It presents around 750 objects, over 400 documents and more than 1,300 photographs. There are also listening booths that present 85 portraits in life stories and 25 memoirs of former inmates and readings of excerpts from the documents. Another 600 biographical annotations are found in various texts in the exhibition. More than forty screens in the exhibition show photographs, films and interview sequences as well as quotations from former inmates.
The exhibition “Buchenwald. Ostracism and Violence 1937 to 1945” is aimed at an audience beyond the contemporary one. Already today, most of the visitors of the memorial no longer have direct memories of National Socialism and World War II. Moreover, they differ in terms of origin, age, previous knowledge, nationality, culture (of memory) and media influence. Exhibitions such as the new permanent exhibition cannot therefore be limited to retelling the story of the concentration camp and its inmates. Rather, they are intended to make it possible to experience the contemporary relevance of the National Socialist break with civilisation and to take seriously the fact that neither the victims nor the perpetrators simply appeared out of nowhere. For that reason, such exhibitions have to convey knowledge about this history in a – literally – graphic way, depicting the circumstances and thus make it comprehensible “how this could happen”; but without patronising like a school teacher, moralising or being (emotionally) overpowering. In order for that to succeed, despite the passing of time and the differences among the visitors, it was essential to do more than to develop new and appropriate thematic perspectives. It was also necessary to create different cognitive and design approaches to the theme in one and the same exhibition. That is why the exhibition comprises five distinct exhibitions forms in terms of content and design that nevertheless form a whole.
This exhibition does not present the history of the Buchenwald concentration camp in isolation. Rather, it shows how the concentration camp was embedded in German society in the years 1937 to 1945. It thus spotlights the political and moral constitution of that society, the attitudes and actions of its institutions, authorities, companies and people, that is to say, the concentration camp’s entanglements with the outside world and how it made use of it in various ways.
The exhibition is not presented as a series or sequence of display cases. It is not designed as a meaningless chronological arrangement of dates and facts. It does not coolly document. But neither does it pretend it would be possible to travel in time and experience directly “what it was like”. Rather, the new permanent exhibition first develops its theme in three strands, each designed in its own way:
Firstly, in a central strand, the history of Buchenwald in Germany from 1937 to 1945 is presented succinctly. It is divided into four chapters and seventeen thematic fields, each of which bundles in modular fashion several elementary facets of this story (sixty-eight of them in total). In this area, the presentation starts out by informatively bringing together and connecting telling historical sources of all kinds: objects, written documents, photographs, film sequences and so on. Listening stations supplement the presentation. Each of the four chapters is explored and historically categorised according to its own guide text. Each of the vertically presented objects characterises the thematic field in question visually and in terms of content, and each thematic field has its own introductory text. The texts focus on the essential and, as much as possible, are free of prejudice, so that even visitors with little previous knowledge are “picked up”.
A second approach takes the form of six listening stations on the stories of inmates’ lives and persecution. Firstly, the examples of eighty-five people make clear the constitution of the community of inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp. For the first time, all of categories of victims who were persecuted based on National Socialist ideology or in the wake of National Socialist occupation are given a voice and a face, even those persecuted for reasons of social racism as “asocials” or “habitual criminals”. Moreover, the life stories clarify the reasons and justifications offered for persecuting and ostracising people, the objectives and goals associated with that and who participated or knew about it. History becomes three-dimensional and concrete in the form of life stories.
A third design element consists of three rooms of artefacts. As self-contained spaces, devoted exclusively to the history of the victims, they employ original objects from the camp or in the possession of inmates during their confinement to present the overarching themes of “Depersonalisation and homogenization”, “Undernourishment and hunger” and “Self-preservation”. The rooms of artefacts convey stories primarily through the senses and visually. They speak in an especially intense way to the historical imagination of the visitors and hence to their capacity for empathy. They are deliberately kept quiet. Historical education and a certain reverent quality are combined in the artefact rooms.
All three strands are related in terms of content and space. Emotional and cognitive learning, being affected and comprehending, visual attraction and historically informed reflection are not played out against each one another, but rather related to one another in enriching and constructive ways.
Two interactive, animated information modules in the exhibition offer additional information that can be called up: first, about the 139 subcamps of the Buchenwald concentration camp and second, about the more than one hundred cites and facilities – prisons, camps and so on – from which people from all over Europe were deported by the Germans to the Buchenwald concentration camp between 1939 and 1945.
Large artefacts and tangible evidences such as the copies of Schiller’s furniture that inmates were forced to make, or the camp’s gallows are freestanding but integrated into the thematic fields. They have deliberately not been placed in display cases. That is not only because it is possible in keeping with conservation principles but especially as a sign that the history and experience of the victims, for the sake of their importance for a better present and future, must be – to express it paradoxically – placed in a museum context but without making them museum objects – that is to say, not to declare them to be “dead history” that can be shed in a museum.
The four main chapters of the exhibition are preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. The prologue takes the form of an audio-visual animation that conveys – compressed into the essential – the historical stages of the political, legal and social transformation in Germany from the transfer of power to Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1933 to the building of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1937. Like the prologue, the epilogue is also distinguished from the main section of the exhibition by its design. Nine spotlights outline the situation in the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp and shed light on its subsequent history, for example, how the National Socialist crimes were dealt with legally and socially in West and East Germany, as well as the hesitation and restrictions thereof. In this final section, survivors speak themselves from three perspectives: soon after the liberation as eyewitnesses of the crime; then in testimonies about the effects of persecution and the camp on them personally and on their lives; finally, in reflections on the consequences that should be drawn from the history and experience of National Socialism.
Architecturally, the exhibition extends for the first time across all three floors of the former depot building. The ground floor is designed as an arrival and orientation area. It also houses the Prologue, and the viewers are confronted with a spatial angle that seems to cut through the ceiling. In fact, however, it is a space-within-a-space construction that runs through all three floors as a kind of disturbance of the building fabric. This construction is neither arbitrary nor artificial. Rather, it adopts the ground plan of the former depot building. As if it was shifted and tipped, the camp building is turned against itself and the history from which it derives and that it symbolises. At the same time, this results in an exhibition space that breaks up the rigid, repetitive geometry of the historical building and liberates the exhibition from its parameters and restrictions; not least, it is liberated from the lack of clarity of the depot building that results from its structure based on three rows of columns, which made it considerably more difficult to make the previous exhibition accessible to visitors. The spatial angle as disturbance is symbolic but also functional within the exhibition.