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Interviews

Bernhard Denkinger about the scenography of holocaust themes

POSTED 18 September 2014
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“In my designs, I try to avoid the totality of an exclusive exhibition narrative in favour of a juxtaposition of various narrative fragments.”

 

The Viennese architect and exhibition designer Bernhard Denkinger has been involved in the past few years in numerous exhibitions in Austria with a Holocaust theme. He is less interested in the sweeping gesture frequently found in the design of national memorials than in creating individual access to history through a local commemoration. In his designs, he avoids both dramatising elements and an exclusive exhibition narrative. He explains why that is and why we are more than ever in need of exhibitions about difficult historical themes like the Second World War and the Holocaust. We also present his latest project, “Stollen der Erinnerung” (Tunnel of Memory).

Interviewer: Anne Horny

Mr Denkinger, you have already done several exhibitions with Holocaust themes. Are exhibitions a suitable medium for dealing with this subject?
Yes, in principle! But there is a need for a paradigm shift away from presentations that attempt to give expression to the horror through dramatic gestures and large-scale events towards a point of view that offers visitors individual access. Solemn and urgent presentations of the historical events are a constant feature of exhibitions about the Holocaust, as is the symbolic emphasis on and exploitation of the former sites. In Austria the official confrontation with the Holocaust and Nazism was confined for decades almost exclusively to Mauthausen Memorial. Mauthausen was at the same time an “exterritorial” site of atrocities in a country apparently otherwise untouched by the historical events. By contrast, the exhibitions “Stollen Nr. 5” (Tunnel No. 5) and “Zeitgeschichte Ebensee Museum”, the permanent exhibition “Gusen Concentration Camp 1938–1945” or “Stollen der Erinnerung” in Steyr show that the entire country down to the smallest community was faced with this problem. The documents on show there demonstrate that the everyday life of normal people could also demand life-threatening decisions. Exhibitions like this, which show the thin line between good and evil and the limited options that were often available, speak to visitors better than reports about a remote site, at which “unspeakable” atrocities took place.

You say that you have developed a specific design approach to “unpalatable” historical themes. Can you tell us something about it?
Exhibitions about the Holocaust have a highly asymmetrical collection of objects. For the most part it is documents coming from the perpetrators that have survived. Some essential facts can often be reconstructed only through eye witness accounts. In many cases, these recollections are unrepresentative: the events taking place at a particular site or time can be replaced a few months later by different scenarios. Many designers attempt to compensate for these interruptions by “dramatising” exhibits, giving them new graphic form or replacing them by audiovisual presentations. Exhibition objects are placed in painted or Formica wall cabinets or on pedestals, which sometimes differ only marginally from living room furnishings or designer kitchens.
For me, paucity is part of the design concept: the squalid, makeshift, improvised and precarious also need to be shown. The structures are often made of unfinished materials or, in the case of purpose-built items, commonplace ones. The objects that can be exhibited, mostly reproductions, form a “material” layer of their own, offering visual focuses and connections independently of the extensive and usually bilingual texts. This asymmetrical object situation is also a theme within the presentations: an apparently randomly placed isolated photo in contrast to a mass of documents by the Nazi bureaucracy can often say more about a situation than the piles of documentary evidence and extensive explanations.

Historical exhibitions tend either to lose themselves in detail or reduce complex subjects to a supposedly objective narrative that focuses less on critical reflection than on a standardisation of knowledge. How do you make your exhibitions interesting not only for experts but also for the general public without becoming one-dimensional and ideological?
Historical exhibitions suffer from the trauma of having to “prematurely” consider work that might be incomplete and not adequately verified.
The fear of missing important aspects and of losing content through the unavoidable trimming, leads to an encyclopaedic additive approach. The designer quickly becomes the “shelf manager” of a supermarket of historical props with the task of packing as much material on the shelves as possible. The second tendency is an understanding of design merely as the execution of a narrative thought up by curators, museologists and exhibition organisers.
In my designs, I try to avoid the totality of an exclusive exhibition narrative in favour of the juxtaposition of various narrative fragments. I often design rooms with visual overlaps between exhibits from different thematic areas or with a connection to the outside world. A second point is the approach to the objects themselves. They are easier to read when they are grouped or placed in a series, thus giving more space and scope to highlight individual objects. Rooms with lots of objects to study place a strain on visitors, while insights and overviews provide security and allow individual access.
In the permanent exhibition in Gusen the written documents are presented horizontally. As visitors enter the exhibition room, they are confronted initially by a small number of medium- and large-size photos serving as signposts for the individual thematic sections. The “problematic” closing sequence, which shows executions and piles of corpses, is hidden by a partition in the form of a blown-up photograph. The details behind the horizontally arranged documents are discovered only on closer inspection. In spite of the large number of objects and texts, the exhibition nevertheless appears expansive and airy.

You say that your most recent exhibition project, “Stollen der Erinnerung”, focuses on two almost irreconcilable functions: “place of commemoration” and “place of learning”. What is the contradiction and how did you resolve it?
Unlike recollection, commemoration has a ritual, religious and ethical component. A “place of learning” communicates material without a predefined interpretation template. The contradiction was resolved by separating the quotations by eye witnesses from the exhibition texts and presenting them without “explanatory” illustrations. Towards the end of the exhibition a series of portraits of former inmates offers an opportunity for individual commemoration.

You were commissioned by a voluntary association that looks after a concentration camp memorial and a Jewish cemetery. You yourself proposed calling in external researchers to assist you. How did the collaboration work? Don’t designers, historians and members of the association have different conceptions?
In the Steyr project you are referring to, social engineering was an important aspect. The association had collected material for over ten years and wanted above all to present the perspective of former inmates. The external curator emphasised the structural context and proposed some necessary shifts in focus. There was also discussion about how much history had to be communicated for the theme to be understood. The (typically Austrian) “balance of interests” between the two sides meant first of all that the programme had to be enlarged. From a designer’s point of view there was a danger that the introductory sequence would be too cluttered and that an excessive number of occasionally repetitive exhibition narratives would conceal the view of the essential and most interesting aspects. Thanks to Bertrand Perz, a historian with a lot of exhibition experience who acted as a consultant, the strictly thematic approach ultimately prevailed. I attempted to emphasise constant features and patterns. A lot of the subject matter of “forced labour”, for example, recurs in a more critical form in the “concentration camp” section.

To prevent the past becoming an end in itself, its relevance to the present must be made visible. What contemporary considerations went into the exhibition, who “speaks” through it, and to whom?
The growing media attention to Nazism and forced labour and the discussion of reparation payments to former forced labourers by Austria has made state institutions and many private decision-makers aware of this subject, which ultimately enabled a project of this nature to be implemented. The “speakers” are first of all the former concentration camp inmates and forced labourers. In the last third of the exhibition, it is more eye witnesses from the local population who “speak”. The point of view of the curators and the association are communicated through the exhibition commentaries. For the association the main target group are young people. According to the statistics, there have been over 6,000 visitors to date from a wide spectrum of population groups: from skittle clubs and company outings to individuals from the nearby region.

Do you think that an exhibition should ask a particular question or present a challenging thesis? And if so, what were they in the case of “Stollen der Erinnerung”?
To ask questions there has to be a good knowledge of the subject and social consensus of how it should be viewed. In Holocaust exhibitions the earlier “discourse of involvement” has been replaced by a wide-ranging fact-based viewpoint. For me, theses are a tool that help me structure my approach. The exhibition “Peter Altenburg” was a classic example of a nice “Vienna 1900” production. My study of Altenburg’s life and works produced the image of a “seedy old man” marred by perversions and alcoholism. The peculiar feature of his creativity was the fragmentary, sensual and usually very short works. In the exhibition these aspects are expressed through a showcase hanging down from the ceiling full to the brim with beer bottles and through the “randomly shaken” exhibits placed at different heights and in different positions, and also through the materials such as the white, translucent plastic panels.

Should designers have an interest in the academic background, and should academics take scenography more seriously?
In the early 1980s there were textbooks to help academics “design” exhibitions. Designers were almost exclusively graphic designers, who apart from the catalogues and texts, merely put up large photographs. Exhibition design and museum scenography did not establish themselves as a separate discipline until much later. I am often inspired by secondary academic works. The design of the exhibition “Euphoria and Unease” makes numerous references to Alain Badiou’s Five Lessons on Wagner.

A final question: Why do we need exhibitions? What is their social function?
A large part of our life and experience is determined today by digital communication patterns and virtual spaces. Exhibitions with real objects that tell stories that actually happened build a bridge with reality. Publicly financed exhibitions make it possible – free of economic interests – to confront historical contexts or social questions. Small institutions often make a disproportionate contribution in this regard. Major exhibition events designed to attract large numbers of visitors by showing famous works of art can be left to the advertising industry and private financing models.

Bernhard Denkinger, thank you for the interview!

Further information about the exhibition “Stollen der Erinnerung” can be found here.

 

Biography

Bernhard Denkinger, born 1956, works as an architect in Vienna specialising in museum and exhibition design. Among the historical projects he has worked on since 1995 are the permanent exhibitions “Stollen der Erinnerung” (2013) and “Gusen Concentration Camp 1939–1945” (2006), the exhibition “The Crematoriums of von Mauthausen“ (2009) and “Zeitgeschichte Museum Ebensee” (2001, together with Ulrike Felber). Apart from the design of photographic and cultural exhibitions like “Schwarzweiss und Farbe” (Essen, 2000), “Ebenbilder” (Essen, 2002) and “Alles wieder anders” (Essen, 2010), his office has also designed exhibitions that offer a critical view of literary and musical culture (“Peter Altenberg”, 2001, and “Euphoria and Unease – Richard Wagner and Jewish Vienna”, 2013).

Translation: Nick Somers

FACTS

Contact:

Bernhard Denkinger Architekt, Vienna (AT) > www.denkinger.at

Photographers:

Andreas Buchberger, Deimel und Wittmar, Rupert Steiner

Fotos:

1 Bernhard Denkinger
2, 3, 4 Konzentrationslager Gusen 1939-45
5 Zeitgeschichte Museum Ebensee
6 Die Krematorien von Mauthausen
7 Alles wieder anders
8 Schwarzweiss und Farbe
9 und 10 Ebenbilder
11 Peter Altenberg