Deakin University

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Affect and the politics of testimony in Holocaust museums

posted on 2016-01-01, 00:00 authored by Steven CookeSteven Cooke, Donna-Lee FriezeDonna-Lee Frieze
In 2010, the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) in Melbourne unveiled its new permanent exhibition, replacing one that had remained, mostly unchanged, for the past twenty years since a major redevelopment in 1990. The former exhibition had received many plaudits from visitors and reviewers for its homespun, intimate aesthetics and display techniques, largely based on photographs (Light, 2002). Central to the JHC’s role as a site of mourning and education, the exhibition included the use of personal testimony from Melbourne’s Holocaust survivors, both in the exhibition displays and through the survivors who ran the museum and shared their stories with individuals and groups. A continuing anxiety over the thirty-year history of the JHC has been the passing of Holocaust survivors. These survivor guides were central to the discourse of a “living museum,” seen as giving the organization its uniqueness compared to other Holocaust institutions as well as other museums generally. Oral survivor testimony was perceived as a key aspect of the museum’s pedagogic potential: The affective encounter with survivors telling their stories while the visitor was viewing the exhibition was identified as having a transformative function, particularly for school-age students who comprised the majority of the visitors. The exhibition redevelopment in 2010 was, in part, a manifestation of that anxiety, with the urgency to incorporate survivor video-testimony increasing as the survivors aged and their memories faded. However, replacing a much-loved exhibition was fraught with difficulties, as the survivors were still very much part of the museum decision-making process. As the JHC had gradually moved from a survivor-volunteer based place of mourning to a professionally run museum with paid employees, there was a need to preserve the voices of the survivors who had been guides at the museum since its opening. Approaching a time when the survivors are not bodily present to share their stories, how might their testimonies still have transformative potential and inform interpretive techniques?


Title of book

Heritage, affect and emotion: Politics, practices and infrastructures.


Critical studies in heritage, emotion and affect

Chapter number



75 - 92


Taylor & Francis (Routledge)

Place of publication

Abingdon, Eng.







Publication classification

B Book chapter; B1 Book chapter

Copyright notice

2016, Taylor & Francis




D Tolia-Kelly, E Waterton, S Watson

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