Introduction by Rachel Donnelly, Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP) Project Manager

The SWWHPP is a three year, national initiative led by IWM supporting partners in the cultural heritage and academic sectors to engage with new audiences as they reflect on these significant histories and explore their lasting impacts on our lives, in digital form and public events. The SWWHPP is generously supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Our Partners are:

  • National Museums Northern Ireland
  • The Highlanders’ Museum
  • Aberystwyth University
  • Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
  • Manchester Jewish Museum
  • Bodmin Keep
  • Museum of Cornish Life
  • National Holocaust Centre and Museum, Nottingham
  • Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, Huddersfield

All the Partners are committed to exploring artistic responses as part of their projects and in October 2020 IWM hosted an online workshop for Partners to develop their ideas, discuss the process of commissioning artists and hear about artistic projects in other organisations. As Project Manager of SWWHPP, I asked a group of fantastic creative practitioners, Dr. Bryce Lease from Royal Holloway University, curator Joanne Rosenthal, and dramaturg and director Patrick Eakin Young to help Partners consider the challenges in commissioning artistic responses to difficult subject matter such as the Holocaust and the Second World War, as well as giving them tools to help think about what their projects might be.

Here, I’ve invited Bryce to speak about what he hoped to achieve through the workshop.

Dr Bryce Lease:

I am currently leading a project called ‘Staging Difficult Pasts’ with a team of international researchers that brings together museum curators and theatre makers who often have shared aims, but not the same artistic strategies or even necessarily shared vocabularies. The Holocaust Gallery at the Imperial War Museum is one of our partners, and this creative workshop was an opportunity to collaborate further with Rachel Donnelly, who is managing the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP). The idea for a two-day workshop with SWWHPP partners arose from initial conversations between Rachel, the dramaturg and performance maker Patrick Eakin Young and myself about the working relationship between a commissioned artist and a museum curator who is responsible for a collection that represents what we might call a ‘difficult past’. My project articulates ‘difficult pasts’ as those that are confrontational, antagonistic towards existing social myths, and difficult to assimilate in grand or heroic narratives. This concept can be separated from concepts such as ‘traumatic pasts’, in that they do not assign trauma to the spectator. The first-person experience of historical trauma, or second-generation inheritance of trauma (as in Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory), is not identical to the representation of such pasts. Rather than downplaying competing memories, the term ‘difficult’ allows us to focus on the ways in which cultural institutions stage understandings of pasts that are explicitly disputed and in conflict with one another.

We invited Joanne Rosenthal, a freelance curator who had worked for many years as the head curator of the Jewish Museum in London. Jo had collaborated on ‘Staging Difficult Pasts’ and offered an outstanding lecture on the ways in which museums, curators, and artists have made creative use of the limitations and opportunities involved in exhibiting absence and loss in expanded landscapes. The talk and workshop took place at the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires in November 2019 and can be viewed here.

Several questions prompted the SWWHPP creative workshop: How does a curator refine an artist brief? How much agency is the museum and the curators able to offer the artist? At what point might curators intervene into an artist’s process? How do you negotiate potential points of conflict between artist and museum?

In order to explore these questions, I focused on two case studies from Staging Difficult Pasts in Kraków and Buenos Aires that involved artist commissions. Both of these collaborations offered rich ground to consider the taboos and restrictions that emerge around difficult pasts and interactions between museums and participants.

Truposznica displayed in the Muzeum Etnograficzne Kraków
Truposznica displayed in the Muzeum Etnograficzne Kraków


In 2018, the Muzeum Etnograficzne in Kraków opened an exhibition, ‘Widok zza bliska. Inne obrazy Zagłady’, that displayed objects made by ethnic Poles who witnessed the Holocaust. One of these objects is called TRUPOSZNICA, Franciszek Wacek’s object/corpse carrier from Treblinka that was used to illustrate wartime stories he told to local children. In February 2019, in collaboration with the Cricoteka and curators of the exhibition (Erica Lehrer, Roma Sendyka, Wojciech Wilczyk, and Magdalena Zych), we commissioned theatre maker and visual artist Wojtek Ziemilski to create a performative action (Akurat tędy szliśmy/We Walked Just This Way). This performance required the artist to remove the object from the museum’s ethnographic frame and place it in a performative experience. The complexities of this object were manifold: it is an object that represents death, but which was constructed as a toy; it was a copy made by the artist, so its originality was contested; and it was an object of bystanding in relation to the Holocaust. The performance augmented the idea of a copy by producing 90 copies in a contemporary language of reproduction: the 3D print. Participants dragged this object through the streets of Kraków, thus embodying the psychic experience of ‘dragging the burden of memory’. Participants walked right to the edge of the former Jewish Ghetto without entering its boundaries, thus drawing attention to an act of commemoration that evoked bystanding and what Michael Rothberg has called the ‘implicated subject’. Taking an object out of the museum allowed it to be both seen and differently experienced by a wider public.

Akurat tędy szliśmy/We Walked Just This Way (2019)
Akurat tędy szliśmy/We Walked Just This Way (2019)

Buenos Aires

In a collaboration between the ESMA Memory Site Museum, we then commissioned Ziemilski to intervene in a complicated space within the museum. While offering an alternative approach to the building that functioned as a unit of torture during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976-1983), the event included two performance interventions that addressed issues of memory and conflictive pasts through theatrical strategies. Alejandra Naftal, ESMA Museum’s director, argued that this performance implied a big challenge. ‘This place was designed to be visited by any Argentinean who may wish to condemn state terrorism. It’s the fruit of many years of work and debate. Today we take the challenge of doing this performance intervention at the museum to explore new ways of thinking about what happened here and what is currently happening around us’. Ziemilski staged ‘The Impossible Scene’ at The Admiral’s House, which used to be Rubén Chamorro’s home, the ESMA’s director, during Argentina’s military dictatorship. The performance was the result of a collaboration between Ziemilski and the renowned Argentine director Rubén Szuchmacher, who entered ESMA for the first time to perform the figure of a perpetrator that repents and asks for forgiveness. While the image of Szuchmacher’s devastated face was projected onto a wall, the director entered the room and called into question the authenticity of the image: ‘Can’t someone cry frankly when he has been a perpetrator?’, ‘Is this what crying is supposed to be like?’ After the performance the audience exited the room through the main entrance of the Admiral’s House, which was opened for the first time since the inauguration of the museum in 2015.

Rubén Szuchmacher in The Impossible Scene (2019)
Rubén Szuchmacher in The Impossible Scene (2019)

Audience in The Admiral’s House, ESMA Memory Site Museum (2019)
Audience in The Admiral’s House, ESMA Memory Site Museum (2019)

In both of these case studies we explored the tensions between the artist and the museum and the ways in which these can be negotiated through communication, compromise, demarcated boundaries, a clear artist brief, and mutual respect.

Taboos or restrictions that informed the artist brief

Buenos Aires:

  • Nothing is allowed to touch the walls
  • Theatre should not take place on this site
  • This is not a room of commemoration
  • The performative register must not be commemorative
  • Any list of authoritarian leaders must not include the names of any individuals respected or valorised by those who were held, tortured or murdered in this building
  • Perpetration needs to be interpreted as right-wing or not interpreted in a political frame


  • The object must not be touched
  • The object must be protected at all times for insurance purposes
  • The artist must not use a drone
  • The copy cannot be disrespectful of the original
  • The copies may not be made in any colour other than white – other colours are not considered appropriately commemorative
  • The walk should be pleasurable or enjoyable
  • The copy should not be treated as a toy
  • The copy must be treated with care
  • The performance register must remain commemorative

Rather than placing ‘theatricality’ on trial, as often happens in criticisms of history museums, these case studies offered us ways of creatively engaging with difficult pasts in a self-reflective register that is both emotionally and critically engaged.