Recently, Centre Director Kathy Baykitch spoke to Pauline about her role at AHMSEC.
Kathy: Can you tell us about your role as Curator at the AHMSEC? What inspires you the most about it?
Pauline: I joined the project team putting together the inaugural exhibition at AHMSEC almost a year ago in September 2019. At that point, the designers had been appointed and plans for the new designated museum space within Fennescey House drawn up. The overall themes had also been determined and the main text written by the consultant historians from University of Adelaide, along with then Project Manager and Education Coordinator.
My job, in a nutshell, was to ‘get it on the walls’! This meant playing a major role in shaping the text to fit the purpose. Museum exhibitions shouldn’t just be ‘books on walls’ and it’s really important to ensure the content is also appropriate for the intended audience which is primarily high school students. So initially, I spent a long time working with the other members of the curatorial team, ‘cutting and moulding’ the material, ready for peer review as well as selecting effective images, footage, objects and other engaging ways to help tell the story. Secondly, it has meant working closely with the design team, to direct how all of the above goes on the walls, or in some cases in digital format or even on the floor! I also have a role providing advice regarding care of collections and how best to display, store, catalogue and administer donations and loans of artefacts.
What inspires me most about this project is that it is not simply a history exhibition chronicling the Holocaust. It doesn’t end there. Not only does it play an important commemorative role in honouring the 6.5 million who lost their lives in the Holocaust, but it also seeks to make a difference. I am passionate about the 21st century museums’ potential as ‘change makers,’ and for being a source of renewed wellbeing, something we need a lot of at the moment. I hope that the take home message will not just be information but also kindness and compassion, and the need to combat hate, racism and antisemitism in all its forms. Within the museum there is a place to reflect and perhaps find healing.
Kathy: Why is it important for a museum like AHMSEC to exist in Adelaide?
Pauline: Some people have said to me ‘why a Holocaust museum in Adelaide’? And I say ‘why not?’ Now more than ever in these uncertain times when we have seen the rise of antisemitism, racism and other forms of hatred, do we need such a place. One where we can learn from the realities of the Holocaust, one that advocates human rights and to be respectful of diversity. There are Holocaust museums in Sydney and Melbourne, while there is the Holocaust Institute in Perth. South Australia has its own dark Holocaust-related history. Tanunda was the home of Johanne Becker, state leader of the Nazi party in Australia in the early 1930s; the war crimes trial of Ivan Polyukhovich took place in Adelaide’s Supreme Court in 1993; and our city was the home of Fredrick Töben, the founder of the Adelaide Institute, Australia’s leading Holocaust denial group.
Kathy: What impact do you think AHSMEC will have on the general public?
Pauline: I hope it will have a great impact on the general public, to engage with students, locals and tourists alike on several levels. I hope it will make us review how we treat refugees and how we see those who are ‘different to us’. The inaugural exhibition is not the final word on the matter. I hope it will engage with the local community and bring forth more stories of Holocaust survivors to enrich those featuring in Gallery 2. It is also intended that this space will also offer the opportunity to develop temporary displays on aspects of the Holocaust, and together with Galley 3 – the Education Centre host relevant travelling exhibitions.
Kathy: What factors have you had to consider in curating a Holocaust museum for Adelaidean visitors?
Pauline: When I first joined the project, the content was largely general in nature, telling the broad history of the Holocaust. I was intent on giving the exhibition a South Australian focus, that would engage with our local visitors, to give them a sense of ownership and pride. I want them to feel that ‘This is our museum, telling our story.’ And not just the Jewish community but those who welcomed and assisted Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe in the 1930s and in the post war years. I have visited the Jewish/Holocaust museums in Sydney and Melbourne as well as the Holocaust Institute of WA in Perth. I felt it important that ours should have a special point of difference. There is also an opportunity to develop displays and tours regarding Adelaide’s Jewish history, as well as curating exhibitions and programs in partnership with other museums.
Kathy: What has been your biggest challenge working on the development of the Museum? What have you found the most rewarding?
Pauline: There have been many challenges – how can one choose which is the biggest?! Like any exhibition or new museum, there is the ongoing challenge of trying to do what you want to do with limited resources, time and money. Add to this, coming in on the project halfway through so you are trying to understand and manage various expectations. Throw in the fact that this is a new museum in a small city on a subject with worldwide interest and maybe some controversy. Its launch is unlikely to go unnoticed. So no pressure – and of course, don’t forget to include a pandemic in the mix! Trying to complete research, ordering images and having meetings under lockdown was indeed trying!
But amidst all the pressure and frustrations has been some extremely rewarding moments. It is satisfying to be able to use my many years’ experience as a museum curator, working with a variety of collections and communities, and a personal interest in World War II history and the Holocaust. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit many Holocaust museums and exhibitions in the past including Yad Vashem. This has been an immense opportunity to be able to contribute to Andrew’s dream coming true, and to work with a team of truly dedicated and professional people to get this project to fruition. In particular, I feel privileged to be able to meet Holocaust survivors and their families who have trusted me to share their remarkable stories within the museum. It has been an honour and has put a great deal in perspective.
Pauline Cockrill is AHMSEC’s Curator. She has worked as a museum curator and freelance researcher/writer for over 30 years in both the UK and Australia. For the last decade, she has been Community History Officer at the History Trust of SA.