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Letter to UKNHF from Professor Christine Stevenson

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the proposed schemes for the National Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens. My response does not comment on individual schemes; rather on the entire concept. I realize that this may not be helpful, but I feel strongly that the idea for the Memorial is misguided (and that it threatens the value of one of the most important open spaces in the very centre of London: the proposed site is tiny, and increasingly crowded; it offers one of the few opportunities for residents of and visitors to that part of London to encounter the river).

I write as a private individual, but I have taught students for many years about memorializing (at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London); the subject is professionally as well as personally important for me.

Without wishing to deny in any way the vital importance of remembering the slaughter in central Europe during the late 1930s and first half of the 1940s, Holocaust memorializing is not the same as the Holocaust; it is a different part of history.

Holocaust memorializing began (only) in the 1980s, for various reasons, and became a vital source of political and cultural (as well as artistic) energy in the 1990s. By the end of the 2000s, however, it had also become an expression of civic and national pride (see the vast list of Holocaust memorials and museums here: Relatively little attention since then has been paid to (1) the significance of site (the difference between Berlin or Auschwitz or Copenhagen, on the one hand, as opposed to San Francisco and Washington on the other) or (2) the difference between memorials on the one hand and learning centres / museums on the other.

I’m not saying that Berlin is better than San Francisco at conveying the message, or that museums are better than memorials: simply that private and civic interests have resulted in a situation where the awful relics of the deaths (boxcars used for transportation, for example) are at a premium, and that we must stop and think about what’s already been achieved.

The real danger is a diffusion of the message that leads to indifference. London already has a Holocaust memorial, in Hyde Park, and a moving and innovative display at the Imperial War Museum. (I think the tendency to divorce genocide from war is dangerous, but that’s another email.) Why, exactly, is the proposed Memorial and learning centre necessary?