“Museums now rely on all sort of interpretive tools to tell their stories and we need everything in the arsenal to do our job well. . .”
Rainey Tisdale “History News” 2011
“But isn’t there a way to communicate authenticity without being hamstrung or limited by collections. In talking it through we wondered if the mere fact that museums do collect objects and engage in scholarship around those objects gives them the credibility to “inject” authenticity into museum experiences – even when no objects are used.
Let’s not throw away our collections in favour of experiences. But let’s NOT let them control the narrative either. Imagine the power of museum experiences driven by inspiring ideas and questions instead of objects. If objects can support a big idea or question, then let’s include them. If not, let’s not be confined by their absence”.
Andrea Jones, Atlanta History Center.
“In our increasingly digital world I think people are going to be more obsessed with authenticity . . . with the analogue . . . with things they can see in real life or hold in their hands.”
Isabella Bruno, The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
The three quotes above offer a comparative range of views on where we are with museums regarding the dynamics of where the digital may be leading. Without question, the digital age is impacting on museum and artefact display in profound ways.
As part of those dynamics it is fascinating to consider how smart phones and mobile devices can impact on the visitor experience of a museum or location, and how this is leading to the museum or historical site having connections and resonance way beyond its actual location. The notion of “Outreach” becomes ever broader. The digital is both invading and colonising museums, historical sites, archives, and collections.
Years ago it would have appeared to be a step too far to discover and embed a digital connection between the horrors of Treblinka Extermination Camp and the Lake District village of Troutbeck Bridge, or more precisely Calgarth Estate that once stood at Troutbeck Bridge.
The connection can now be explored physically, digitally, and a whole new range of possibilities are thrown up through a certain kind of collaboration. A few years ago a popular term was “the local is international” and we are now also adding that “the international is local”.
Many stories and layers of meaning are attached to the story of the three hundred child Holocaust Survivors who came to be living on Calgarth Estate in the summer and autumn of 1945.
The Lake District story of The Windermere Children is well established enough to be associated with recovery, rehabilitation, and resilience. It was here in the Lake District that Mayer Hersh described “feeling free for the first time. We had been liberated in Theresienstadt but only felt free once we arrived in the Lake District”.
Mayer arrived in the Lake District having survived numerous concentration camps, including eighteen months in Auschwitz Birkenau in the shadow of the gas chambers and crematoria, literally. He discovered much later that his father was murdered in Birkenau at some point while he was also there but such was the vastness of the camp, and its operations, that a chance meeting would have been nigh on impossible.
The remaining members of his family were all murdered in Chelmno Extermination camp, other than his brother who also survived the camps and had even spent time with Mayer in Birkenau.
For so many of the children it is unknown as to where their families were murdered while others may know that their loved ones perished in concentration camps including Auschwitz, in Extermination camps including Chelmno, in towns, cities, ghettos, in shtels, in villages, on Death Marches.
Many simply disappeared.
So where does Treblinka come into the story? Sadly, we know that many of the Jewish children who came to the Lake District were never reunited with any members of their family. We also know that a number of their families were murdered in the Extermination camp of Treblinka.
The camp was constructed in forests to the north east of Warsaw and was located on the railway system almost mid-point between the ghettoes of Warsaw and Bialystok. The placing of the camp near the village of Treblinka, and the rail junction of Malkinia, was pre-planned and not some random location.
When I visited Treblinka with my friend Rose Smith and the artists Miroslaw Balka, I was struck very hard emotionally by seeing recognisable names on the commemorative field of stones that marked those Jewish communities who were destroyed at Treblinka. I counted as close friends many of the child survivors in Windermere who had lost families here, and I recognised particular place names connected to their stories.
They could never visit Treblinka and I felt I was there on their behalf. One of them had said I was his Landsmann and this was the first occasion that I felt the honour, and the duty, so viscerally.
Lake District Holocaust Project has been working with Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and the Centre for Archaeology at Staffordshire University for a number of years. I first came across Caroline’s name when I visited the exhibition at Treblinka and was struck by how it was a British Forensic Archaeologist who had gained permission to carry out studies at the Treblinka Extermination Camp. I was so intrigued that I contacted Caroline and we began to discuss ways that we could work together.
When we carried out the archaeological survey and excavations at Calgarth led by Caroline and the Centre for Archaeology it was poetic, and emotionally charged, that the two Windermere survivors who joined us at the dig, and who recalled their stay in Calgarth vividly, were Ike Altermann and Sam Laskier.
It was poetic in the sense that we knew Ike and Sam lost their families at Treblinka.
We had created some kind of connection that spanned the distance between Treblinka and Calgarth, and also spanned the timeframe from the dreadful events of Treblinka to the “Paradise” of the Lake District (as described by the surviovrs who arrived here in 1945 express in their own words, and often).
We also knew that we could create patterns and connections between the artefacts and objects from Treblinka and Calgarth, and interweave them with the oral history, archives, and documents we possessed and had access to.
This also had remarkable education potential in so many ways. A multi layered Post Holocaust and cultural project so specifically attached to the space it was being delivered in, well, it was (and is) irresistible.
The initiative has evolved into a network that extends from USHMM, Harvard University, San Francisco Holocaust Museum, National Holocaust Museum UK, Staffordshire University, and Lake District Holocaust Project.
The network looks to establish a way, and means, to share the vast collections of objects, artefacts, and documents, expertise related to the Holocaust that are spread across these institutions. Lake District Holocaust Project was delighted to be invited to take part as a “small organisation with a big heart” in the words of Miroslaw Balka.
The 3D scans of objects you see here, initially from Calgarth Estate and Treblinka, are the beginning of a transnational project to make so many objects and archives accessible.
We decided to see what artists would make of these objects, and what young people would make of them, so that more conceptual, poetic, and real networks are opened up on a virtual platform. The objects have a resonance in reality and digitally.
Enormous thanks and gratitude extended to Staffordshire University Centre for Archaeology…
In April 2022, Staffordshire University returned to the former site of the Calgarth Estate and continued to scan and dig across the area. A digital scanning space was temporarily based in Windermere Library for the duration of the visit. A few pictures are in the slide show below: