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 Patrick to speak about what he hoped to achieve through the workshop.

Patrick Eakin Young:

My role in the workshops was to help the participants think through what their artistic project might be. Though I am an artist myself – a theatre-maker, primarily – I am also an interdisciplinary Dramaturg, which means that I help people think through creative ideas.

As a dramaturg, I am concerned about how to draw out a strong concept from the many themes, images, and ideas that inevitably swirl around a project. What I want to arrive at is a simple image or phrase that defines the piece: I call this conceptual nugget The Kernel. The Kernel is the idea at the centre of something. It’s not the subject matter or the shape of a piece, or even what it does, rather it’s the connection between these things. When you boil something down, what’s left in the pot is the Kernel, the residue that is the essence of the thing itself.

You can always look for a Kernel, no matter what stage of a project you might be in. If you’re at the beginning, and have no idea what to do, a Kernel will help you set off. It can help you identify what kind of project you might want to pursue, and what other partners or collaborators you might need in order to do it. If you’re halfway through a project, taking the time to define your Kernel can help refocus or clarify where you are. It can show you what is essential and what is not. Even after the fact, you can always look back and find the Kernel in what was done – which is often not what you thought you were doing in the first place!

In this workshop, I wanted to help the partner organisations think about what the Kernel for their artistic project might be. Each of the SWWHPP partners are planning very different projects about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Similarly, they’re all at different stages of development for their artistic responses – some had already commissioned artists, while others had not yet determined their subject. But I knew that wherever they were in their process, thinking about a Kernel would help develop their ideas.

The first stage in finding a Kernel is about imagining. What kinds of things have people done, and what kinds of things would we like to do? When I’m making my own work, I like to collect images, listen to music, and watch YouTube videos. So for the participants I started by leading them on a little tour of artists’ work that I thought was relevant and/or cool. The purpose here is to survey the possibilities of artistic responses, to excite the imagination, to think associatively, and to engage in a moment of collective dreaming.

The second stage is about drawing connections. For this step, I led the participants through a process I’ve developed which thinks through a project by brainstorming around Images, Themes and Forms. With each partner group, we talked about the subject matter that they were treating, the images that came up in thinking about it – either from their collections, or associatively – what themes were part of the work, and what shapes, structures or forms they were interested in or thinking about. By articulating the different aspects of a project in this way, you can start to draw connections between what a project is representing, how it is relaying to audiences, and what it is about.

We recorded the brainstorming sessions on worksheets, and I’d like to present one below as an example. This partner was interested in doing a project with a technological-artistic focus. The partners had thought a lot about the form of the project, as it would relate to phones, texting, and the way information systems work, but they hadn’t fully come to an idea of the content of the piece, and they hadn’t connected so much with why the project should be in that form. Through this discovery process, we started to see an idea emerge about the difficulty of communicating certain topics. What conversations are hard to have? What mediums do you choose to express certain subjects in? This partner’s project was ultimately about the Holocaust, and it began to be clear that there was a Kernel here about how the Holocaust is spoken about. Connecting information systems to the Holocaust, we come to a Kernel that is about communicating difficult subjects and the image of saying something that is hard to say. This could lead in all sorts of directions, but it gives the project a strong conceptual anchor point.

A Kernel can be anything, and ultimately, there is no right or wrong Kernel, there is just the one that is the most compelling under the circumstances. In the creation of a project, thinking about a Kernel can give a project a clearer identity and a sense of direction, without being overly determined, and will allow it to grow confidently through a process with other creative partners.