Recovering Memories: The New Exhibition at the Gedenkstätte (Memorial) Bergen-Belsen

By Rainer Schulze.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Bergen-Belsen is one of the best-known concentration camps on German soil. However, it is also one of the camps which is often misremembered. It was not only a concentration camp, but also a prisoner-of-war camp (mainly for Soviet PoWs), and, after the war, a camp for displaced persons, at first mainly for survivors of the concentration camp; later it became the largest Jewish DP Camp in Germany. Of these three camps, the concentration camp existed for the shortest period of time – yet it is the camp that most people think of when Bergen-Belsen is mentioned. The contradictions between the historical Bergen-Belsen and the public memory of the place are the result of the protracted process of forgetting and remembering over the past 60 years. On 28 October 2007, a new permanent exhibition opened at the Gedenkstätte (memorial) Bergen-Belsen, set in a new building specifically commissioned for this purpose and deliberately not entitled museum but documentation and information centre. This exhibition intends to recover the memory of Bergen-Belsen which was all but concealed for many years at the actual historical site. The master narrative is shaped by the key aim to explain the historic site, and the exhibition documents the history of all three camps which existed there. The history of Bergen-Belsen is told as far as possible from the perspective of those who were imprisoned there, or for whom it became the place of rehabilitation after their liberation. As almost all German records on Bergen-Belsen were destroyed before the handover of the camp to the British Army in April 1945, the exhibition makes extensive use of non-traditional sources. At the same time, visitors are helped to understand the historic structures of the site by a new landscape design. The paper discusses the main principles which guided the work on this new exhibition, the decisions which the team took with regard to its design and its narrative, and the first reactions from the public since the opening of the exhibition.
With fewer and fewer people left who lived through Bergen-Belsen, it becomes increasingly the task of the Gedenkstätte and its permanent exhibition to ensure that Bergen-Belsen keeps a place in public memory. The overall purpose of the paper is to discuss how far this can be achieved through an exhibition now that more than 60 years have passed since the events.

Keywords: Holocaust Museum, Public Memory, Concentration Camps, Bergen-Belsen

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.103-112. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 618.568KB).

Dr. Rainer Schulze

Head of Department, Department of History, University of Essex, Colchester, UK

PhD in History (University of Göttingen, Germany); Reader in Modern European History in the Department of History at the University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom; since August 2005 Head of Department; member of the International Advisory Board (Internationale Expertenkommission) for the Redevelopment of the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen, since 2000 involved in the development of the new permanent exhibition which opened at the Gedenkstätte in October 2007; research interests include the history of Bergen-Belsen, questions of German collective memory and identity in the twentieth century, and the Second World War and forced migration in Europe; work in progress includes a monograph on the history and memory of Bergen-Belsen.

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