Senior Exhibitions Officer at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Jessica Litherland, tells us about the dynamic programme of activities they ran for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014. 

At Rugby Art Gallery and Museum we have a yearly programme of changing temporary exhibitions.  We show contemporary art in all media and our shows, on average, are on display for eight weeks.  For Holocaust Memorial Day 2014 we organised an exhibition of paintings by Rugby based artist Iris Anne Berger.  Iris’s art work focuses on the story of Anne Frank and through sharing Anne’s journey we discussed the history of the Holocaust and also contemporary genocides.

We developed several educational resources for the exhibition that would be available for visitors throughout the eight week run.  We created an activity area that was designed to look like Anne’s bedroom in the secret annexe.  We painted one wall of the gallery to look like Anne’s bedroom wall and marked out on the floor the actual size of the room so visitors could ‘stand in Anne’s shoes’.  We set up a writing desk and put out objects that Anne herself had on the desk - such as an ink pot and lamp as well as a mock-up of her diary.  There were two activities for visitors.  The first activity asked visitors several questions such as what would it be like to be labelled as different? and asked them to write their response on a page of a diary.  This page was then attached to ‘Anne’s wall’ so that visitors could share their responses.  The second activity focused on case studies of people who had to escape from genocide and what they managed to take with them.  For this we utilised the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s resources by presenting a survivor speaker video and case studies taken from the website.  The activity posed a question to visitors asking what they would take with them if they suddenly had to escape from their home.  Luggage tags were provided to write responses on then hung on the gallery walls.

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January we invited school pupils from two local schools to take part in a study day linked to the Anne Frank exhibition.  The study day included a HMD presentation (an assembly from the HMDT website), talk and tour of the exhibition, followed by workshops.  During the session students explored the themes of discrimination, refugees and journeys, and took part in an art activity where they created collaged paper 'suitcases' comprising drawings, text and images linked to the themes they had discussed earlier in the day.

We felt this study day was extremely successful and made an impact.  55 students attended and the event was supported by the Mayor of Rugby, the MP for Rugby, Mark Pawsey, and the artist.  The students listened intently, asked informed questions and showed an interest and empathy with the presentation and exhibition.  Some of the work produced was excellent and students used keywords and images in context and creatively. Feedback from the students was that they felt they had learnt something, some of them were inspired to go to the HMD website to find out more information, others said the exhibition had inspired them to make their own artwork. Each student also wrote a pledge on a luggage tag provided by the HMDT; taking a step for Holocaust Memorial Day.

We found some aspects of organising this exhibition and the Holocaust Memorial Day activity challenging. The subject matter itself can of course be upsetting and spending weeks writing literature and activities while immersed in this subject was certainly a challenge for us.  It also took us a long time to decide how best to approach designing the sessions for a younger age group, making sure we used the correct terminology and language they would be able to understand.

To prepare for our events we went to our local HMD training workshop where we learnt more about the Holocaust and subsequent genocides from knowledgeable staff from HMDT and met other local organisers.  Swapping ideas was very helpful and the session helped to build our confidence in dealing with the difficult subject matter.  We have learnt that it is important to be brave about presenting difficult stories.  We were concerned about how the subject matter would affect visitors and activity participants but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  We also realised that you can accomplish a lot with few resources and a small budget- it is about being creative.  All of our educational materials for the exhibition and activity day were developed for under £100.  This was in part due to the amazing resources provided by the HMDT, which we would recommend to all organisations as a great starting point for developing your own ideas.

We genuinely feel that as an organisation we have been able to make an important contribution to raising awareness of issues relating to genocide and we are very proud of what we have produced.

Museums and galleries are ideally placed to mark HMD.  If you're from a museum or gallery, find out how you can engage your local communities with the messages of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Thank you to Jessica and the staff at Rugby Art Gallery and Museum.