Permanent Exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC) / 2019
The JHGC opened the doors of its new award-winning building and its educational centre in 2016. At the time, some initial conceptual, film and design work had begun on creating the permanent exhibition that was to occupy the lower floor of the building. A year later, the director of the JHGC employed Trace to oversee a turnkey project to produce the permanent exhibition. Our curatorial and design team took on the daunting challenges common to all exhibitions that deal with the enormity of the horror embedded in the historical retelling of genocide stories. How does one adequately represent the scale of the mass murder and annihilation that was witnessed in Europe during WW2 and then again on our own continent in 1994? How does one adequately capture the painful stories of survival and loss? Is there a material language that does justice to imagining the unimaginable?
We tackled this in the simplest of ways by foregrounding the human story and ensuring that the identity and voice of the victims and the survivor is constantly present in each and every space in the exhibit so that trauma is humanized and does not overwhelm and distort the experience. We worked with survivor testimonies, with a vast collection of objects and artefacts, with a series of documents that bear evidence to the mechanics of the genocides. Victim and survivors’ stories are never one-dimensional. Through the course of the exhibit, the stories grow, and individual narrative transform through the many different layers of story-telling. It is in the excavation and display of the details of ordinary people’s lives that the exhibition pays tribute to the suffering and their resilience of the survivors.
Very importantly, the human voices in both of the exhibit are of survivors and families of victims who lived or still live in Johannesburg which directly invites us to make links to this country, in stories that may seem that they happened so far away and so long ago.
We begin and end the exhibition by locating genocide in wider context, a context which speak to issues of today. Collectively, the stories speak to the fragile nature of the democracy and the ways in which a government can gain autocratic control; the way that the targeted groups took agency is also a very important outcome.
The exhibition opened in March 2019 to critical acclaim. Media reports and visitor feedback have consistently used the words ‘world class’ to describe the exhibit. The greatest compliment has come from the survivors themselves. They expressed their gratitude and appreciation to our team for being honoured in such a dignified and creative way.