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Museum as Mirror for Visitor

HSE St. Petersburg students have learnt about the story of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) from one of its founders. On 14 December 2015, Ms. Raye Farr, former Director of the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive and of the museum's permanent exhibition, gave a lecture “Creating Public History: World War II and the Holocaust”. The event was organized by the History Department and the Centre for Historical Research of HSE St. Petersburg, together with the U.S. Consulate General.

‘Destroyed by the Nazi army, a French village lay in ruins and remained deserted several years after the victory over fascism. Settlers had never returned there to breathe new life into their abandoned and seemingly uninhabitable settlement, as there was nothing to restore. A camera, filming from a helicopter, captured only empty shells of roofless buildings that resembled half-melted candles’

Ms. Raye Farr, a documentary filmmaker, who dedicated 20 years to production of historical films about the Second World War, Holocaust and history of the 20th century, could not have started her presentation otherwise. She presented a segment of the famous documentary series “The World at War”, which she worked on as a film researcher. This award-winning series drew millions of viewers to TV screens 40 years ago and became one of the first steps towards founding the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

‘The English channel ‘Thames Television’ produced “The World at War” and for the first time broadcast it to the public in 1969,’ Raye Farr remembered, ‘Apparently, the streets of London became noticeably emptier during the weekly broadcast. The documentary was a great success in the United States too. In fact, it even defined some people’s destinies. Two years ago the documentary producer Jeremy Isaacs, together with other producers and researchers, was invited to the Bristol Festival of Ideas. There we met people who admitted that this series had inspired them to choose a career of a history teacher.’

The documentary was based on German video archives that were brought to the US in 1945 and then returned to Germany 20 years later, where they were discovered and carefully studied by Ms. Raye Farr and her colleagues. These were tapes recorded by Nazi officers during the war. They were not used in official German video chronicles; hence, these films were never edited, nor censored. The tapes later moved to the USHMM, which opened in 1993.

A research trip to Poland, including the partly destroyed Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, preceded the shaping of the exhibition. Walking along wrecks that once acted as tools of psychological and physical torture for prisoners, museum officials developed the idea of an exposition. One of the camp’s barracks was brought to Washington and incorporated into the exhibition. Catwalks, resembling the ones for Jews, who were forced to use them in order to cross streets without mixing with the “higher race”, connect the museum wings.

Although supported by the US government, the setting up the the museum did not always run smoothly. The living memory of the events presented, as well as the national and political interests of the countries involved and beliefs of all concerned parties made the definition of the general message and way of presentation troublesome, as well as its selection of artifacts. However, they finally finished their work, and since 1993, the USHMM has had about 30 million visitors. Today it is one of the most popular and highly-rated museums in D.C.

‘We wanted our exposition to act as a mirror for our visitors, in which they could see the story of their families and nations, their own challenges and pain,’ Ms. Raye Farr noted, ‘I think we succeeded. I have shown our museum to people from different countries, including those that have experienced the hardships of a totalitarian regime, such as Iraq, Rwanda and Kurdistan. Every time I presented the exhibition to them I saw it through their eyes and every time it was a different story.’    

The meeting with Ms. Raye Farr concluded with a discussion. Participants, half of whom were international students, asked questions based on their own experience of seeing expressions of totalitarianism. Some students mentioned Mao Zedong’s regime in China, while others indicated similarities and differences between the approaches used in the USHMM and the Russian GULAG Museum in the Solovetsky archipelago.