Speaking Memories

Speaking Memories – The Last Witnesses of the Holocaust is an exhibition dedicated to those who were there. Those who have personal memories and experience from the Holocaust. Those who survived.

Presenting portraits and testimonies, the exhibition focuses on survivors who rebuilt their lives in Sweden after the Holocaust.

The exhibition provides access to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which contains 55,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. In addition, authentic objects borrowed from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum will be on display. All of the above are presented for the first time in Sweden.

Big Image printed images on wallpaper, adhesive foil and fabric. At the beginning of the exhibition there’s a photo of a huge pile of suitcases, this image is printed on lengths of both adhesive foil and wallpaper. The lengths are color matched and melts together beautiful. Big Image got the opportunity to interview the production leader Pernilla Tenje & project leader Susanna Zidén.

Would you please tell us how Speaking Memories came about and what emotions you and the co-creators of the exhibition hope to evoke?

The “Speaking Memories” project is a collaboration between Jewish Culture in Sweden, Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, USC Shoah Foundation and Auschwitz-Birkenau State museum. The portraits of the Holocaust survivors presented in the exhibition were taken by Karl Gabor, who also documented the work of the collaboration.

When we began the exhibition work, we felt it was important to create an exhibition environment that provides space to express the atrocious experiences that the survivors describe, while at the same time conveying hope. We wanted the environment to be neutral and stripped down to ensure that the witness testimony was the clear focus. It was important to communicate that the portrait subjects are people who are alive today, so we chose to present the portraits in color.

What choices did you make for the design and scenography of Speaking Memories?

At the entrance to the exhibition, there is a large portrait of one of the survivors. We decided against using historical documentary images in the design of the exhibition. It instead revolves around contemporary portraits of the survivors and their testimonies. The first room of the exhibition is a dark and stripped down entrance and introduction to the exhibition. Here, the visitors are met with another large photo on the wall depicting the huge pile of suitcases that is on display at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. One of these suitcases is shown next to this picture. We chose to use matte wallpaper at both of the large pictures.

For the exhibition form, we drew inspiration from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, an environment of dark, rectangular formations that visitors wander around. Our aim was to create a bright version of this memorial. The architecture is designed so that visitors can have a individual experience while at the same time feeling a sense of community with other visitors who come in and out of view as they move behind and between the formations. Each portrait has its own wall module and form. Pernilla designed them so that we can vary the distance and depth effect between the portraits. The walls are smooth and gray, creating neutral framing of the portraits, which are illuminated from behind by means of light boxes. The environment is based on a palette of light gray, midnight blue, white and wood tones. Black and white are often used as contrasting colors in Holocaust exhibitions. With our color palette, we tried to create a warmer and safer feel in the environment that makes visitors want to stop and immerse themselves in the testimonies. The rooms also have several seating areas that enable visitors, either alone or in groups, to sit and collect their thoughts for a moment.

How well has Speaking Memories been received?

Interest and demand have been great, and the exhibition has had many visitors. The school tours that the museum offers have been more or less fully booked from day one. The Swedish History Museum has therefore decided to extend the Speaking Memories exhibition, and it will now run until December 8th.

 Is there any reaction or event from the exhibition that has left a particularly strong impression on you?

Through the project, there have been many powerful interactions with the survivors, particularly when some of the portrait subjects have come to the museum and spontaneously led tours in the exhibition. A touching memory for Susanna is from filming with Livia Fränkel and Adéle Schreiber. They have generously shared their experiences of the Holocaust in various contexts for many years, but she did not think they talked to each other about their first few years in Sweden until now. That conversation sparked a lot of memories – about their first home, learning a new language, finding a job, finding love, or being free to meet with friends, go to parties and go to the theater for the first time. These memories are proof that the people portrayed in the exhibition have truly survived and have moved forward in their lives. It gives hope.

Pernilla have spent a lot of time alone in the exhibition space, positioning the forms, the portrait pictures and texts, and reading and listening to the personal stories. The people have made her stronger in her convictions and as a human being. The interactions with the survivors have been the best events.

80 years have passed since the outbreak of World War II. What do you think is the most important thing we should take with us going forward and pass on to future generations?

The most important thing is to make sure that future generations understand that the Holocaust really did happen. That people can actually be capable of such terrible deeds, and that human rights must be actively protected to ensure they are not chipped away at until they disappear. It has happened in history, and is even happening in our time around the world. It is in this context that museums play an important role of conveying history. At the Swedish History Museum, we also consider it important to show the Holocaust and World War II as a part of Sweden’s history. The purpose of the production is to draw attention to the last living testimonies of the Holocaust, and to increase awareness of how the Holocaust and the events are linked to Sweden.