Artifacts and Curation at the the Toronto Holocaust Museum

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March 15, 2023

curatorial team
THM curatorial team in the museum. Steph Hachey, Rachel Libman, and Hanna Schacter.

As the work continues to complete the Toronto Holocaust Museum, an important element is selecting historical artifacts for the main exhibition. Rachel Libman, Chief Curator, along with her team, have been hard at work curating the exhibits that will be showcased throughout the space. In this article, she explains the artifact selection process.

Torah Scroll rescued during Kristallnacht.
Torah Scroll rescued during Kristallnacht.

Kultura Collective: What is the importance of including artifacts in the new museum?

Rachel Libman: If the purpose of modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display objects of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the study and education of the public, then artifacts are core to our work to remember and teach about the Holocaust. Personally, I connect to objects that tell rich stories and whisper of the person who owned or made them – and I am not alone.

Our museum’s artifacts go hand-in-hand with our other core collection: oral testimony from Holocaust survivors who came to Toronto. Surrounded by written text, images, and media to offer context and history, the artifacts and testimony clips draw the visitor in, illustrating the bigger history from individual, specific viewpoints that are moving and personal.

For the Toronto Holocaust Museum, we will be telling these stories through objects from the original Centre, new items from survivors and their families, and loans from other institutions that support our goals. We are working closely with the family of Holocaust survivor George Brady z”l to exhibit a number of artifacts from their extraordinary collection. We are also including a number of artifacts from the Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum at Beth Tzedec.

KC: What is the criteria for selecting artifacts for inclusion?

RL: Our focus is on items that belonged to survivors and their families with a connection to Toronto. Often, these artifacts tell multiple stories: the Torah that was rescued from a burning synagogue in 1938 was brought to Canada by a chaplain who eventually made his career here, Rabbi Gunther Plaut z”l, and offers multiple points of entry for interpretation, meaning, and dialogue.

curatorial team
THM curatorial team in the museum. Steph Hachey, Rachel Libman, and Hanna Schacter.

KC: What is the process of verification?

RL: Our team does extensive research to learn as much as we can about objects and their chain of custody before acquisitioning them – this is called provenance. We will interview the lender or donor and research the original owner, looking through archives and watching testimony footage to corroborate details. We’ll also look for historical evidence to support the story and comparable artifacts in other collections to see if it all aligns – did Jews in Bulgaria wear a specific kind of yellow star? Would slave labourers in specific camps have had access to materials to make personal items? We work to pinpoint names, dates, and places.

KC: What has been the most significant/unique/unexpected artifact offered to the museum?

RL: All of them are special and each conversation with donors is an exciting one. One example of a recent acquisition is a Sugihara visa that belonged to Polish Holocaust survivor Daniel Zultek who escaped Poland in late 1939 for Lithuania, and thanks to the visa, was able to later flee Nazi-dominated Europe through Japan and end up in Canada. His daughter, Irene Henry, heard about the museum and donated the incredibly rare visa signed by Sugihara along with other travel documents belonging to her father that vividly illustrate this remarkable story of rescue. We are working closely with our colleagues at the Ontario Jewish Archives who will ensure the long term preservation of these important records.

Auschwitz-Birkenau cutlery, post-conservation treatment. Both the fork and spoon were stabilized by removing acidic surface debris and loose plating was consolidated, preventing further flaking and damage. The knife handle was left as-is to preserve the chemical evidence of its history. Collection of Nate Leipciger.

KC: Has there had to be restoration performed on any previous or new artifacts?

RL: Yes! In museum-speak, this is usually called conservation. We are fortunate to have a collections-focused staff person with us during this exciting and busy time before the museum’s opening. Since joining our team last year, Steph Hachey has documented, assessed, and made recommendations for preservation of many of the artifacts, both existing and new acquisitions. Sometimes, this is basic cleaning or small repair work to support the object for exhibition. Other times, the work is more complicated – for example, our original collection included metal cutlery from Auschwitz-Birkenau that was very corroded and dirty. Steph took it to a metal specialist to clean it, and we learned it had soot on it, evidence that the cutlery was likely from the infamous Kanada warehouses and burned in the fires set by the evacuating SS in January 1945.

Steph has also recommended a lot of our documents undergo paper conservation – old documents like passports and identity cards need highly specialized repair work so that we can continue to exhibit them without causing more wear and tear. Sometimes, owners used clear tape to hold papers together – the tape damages the paper underneath, but a specialist can remove it and repair the original document using a special process and materials.

Sugihara Visa, post-conservation treatment. Daniel Zultek’s Polish certificate signed by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara in 1940 saved his life. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2022-2-3. Irene Henry collection.

KC: What kind of objects would not be included for display?

RL: We’re being really deliberate in our curatorial choices in order to support our educational goals and be true to the vision of our founders: to teach about the Holocaust from the perspective of survivors who came to Toronto. From a pedagogical perspective, we’re very careful about exhibiting Nazi imagery, propaganda, and extremely graphic content. Where we choose to do so, we will be utilizing drawers and offering context. Items that do not align with those goals are not included, such as later artwork about the Holocaust, antisemitica, Nazi paraphernalia or instruments of torture, or graphic or explicit photographs.

KC: Will there be a rotation of artifacts over time?

RL: Yes. This is part of our curatorial strategy for a few reasons: there are so many stories to tell from the rich and diverse community of survivors who came to Canada, and rotations allow us to highlight different ones. We can rotate among identity cards or yellow stars, for example, which tell slightly different stories depending on who they belonged to. As well, rotations keep the museum exhibit fresh and repeat visitors will always have new things to uncover. And, finally, from a conservation viewpoint, most objects are best preserved with rest periods where they are not exposed to light or mounted for display.

This article was previously published in the Toronto Holocaust Museum’s Legacy Magazine, Fall 2022.


THM curatorial team in the museum. Steph Hachey, Rachel Libman, and Hanna Schacter.

Rachel Libman is Chief Curator of the Toronto Holocaust Museum, opening this June. Actively engaged in the field of Jewish and Holocaust museums, she oversees content development of the physical exhibit and digital components, networks with stakeholders, and strives to ensure that the Toronto Holocaust Museum represents the cutting-edge approaches in pedagogy and audience engagement with our curatorial strategy and interactive technologies. An experienced programming professional, Rachel creates accessible opportunities for publics to engage with Holocaust education and remembrance that are rooted in history, best practices, and new approaches in the field. She previously oversaw the annual Neuberger Holocaust Education Week for ten years and planned community commemorations, lectures, film screenings, temporary exhibitions, symposia, and travel experiences for a diverse audience. Rachel has a Masters in History and a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto.


THM rendering. Courtesy of Reich and Petch International.

TORONTO HOLOCAUST MUSEUM 

COMING IN SPRING 2023

Thanks to an extraordinary contribution of $12 million from the Azrieli Foundation, UJA is thrilled to announce that the new Toronto Holocaust Museum will open in June.

This state-of-the-art facility in the Sheff Family Building will inspire visitors to think deeply about the tragedies of the Shoah and to make connections between the Holocaust, world events, and contemporary Canadian life.

Founded by Holocaust survivors in 1985 as a place dedicated to sharing their stories with students, the revitalized museum—one of the first to be designed for the post-survivor era—will  ensure their testimonies continue to be shared long after they are gone. This new museum will present an immersive educational experience for students from across the GTA. It will also serve as a site of memory for descendant families, affirming the enduring legacy of their parents and grandparents.

The museum’s thoughtfully designed space has the capacity for greatly expanded programs and experiences to engage a wide range of audiences with this difficult history while ensuring visitors reflect on its contemporary relevancy. As a centre of excellence and innovation, the museum will generate knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust and serve as a forum for dialogue about civil society for present and future generations.

Thank you to our generous donors who have already made commitments to this exciting initiative. We are grateful for the York family for perpetuating their family’s commitment to Holocaust education.

If you have not yet contributed, you can still be part of this transformational project. A capital and/or endowment gift is the most powerful way to ensure the sustainability of Holocaust education, both today and into the future.

If you are interested in learning more about the Toronto Holocaust Museum, please contact Barbara Tylbor at btylbor@ujafed.org.

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