The Pity of Things: Confronting the Holocaust in Archaeology and Art

The Pity of Things: Confronting the Holocaust in Archaeology and Art

The Holocaust is arguably the central event of the twentieth century. Although its continued relevance is undoubted, the sheer immensity of the Shoah hinders its understanding and communication, especially in primary education. As many countries wrestle with this problem, the Holocaust actually risks becoming banal, losing its power to disturb in the face of more recent crimes against humanity.

This project approaches the Holocaust in a new way, focussing on material culture – specifically on things – as a means of dealing with the genocide in a tangible form. Archaeological data is compared with the discrete category of contemporary art that has the Holocaust as its theme, both approaches using objects as a means of provoking debate and communicating the nature of the crime in a form that goes beyond the now-familiar images and survivor testimonies.

We are also addressing the issue of how the Holocaust is remembered and memorialised, including the difficult questions of tourism, conservation and preservation at prominent sites such as Auschwitz, contrasted with the virtual neglect of many lesser-known camps. Our project benefits from collaborative contact with the Holocaust research centres at the universities of Uppsala and Oslo, with archaeological fieldwork at the concentration camps in Poland.

The project includes visits to Holocaust museums and memorials in a variety of countries, including the new state Memorial to the Murdered in Berlin, the Israeli state archives of the Shoah at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, as well as work with numerous art installations. The project is now complete, waiting only for a last visit to Auschwitz to check material.

The publication is in preparation and will be submitted in early 2012.

Image: Zbigniew Libera, Lego Concentration Camp (1996)
One of the most controversial and disturbing works of contemporary Holocaust art