Imperial War Museums (IWM) travel to Israel with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Clare Lawlor, Producer – Public Engagement and Learning at the Imperial War Museums (IWM) travelled to Israel in January 2023 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. This is the report from Clare’s visit.

As part of the latest phase of transformation at IWM London, the museum planned on opening ground-breaking new Second World War and Holocaust Galleries in Spring 2021. In response to the new galleries, academic research and new ways of engaging with audiences, the Public Engagement and Learning team were tasked with producing an innovative new learning programme for secondary students visiting the new galleries with an emphasis on critical thinking about the past and IWM’s collection.

IWM wanted to establish a study visit to Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center to share best practice in the field of Holocaust education and to develop links and potential partnership work with their education and learning specialists. As a result of the pandemic, this visit was delayed and took place after the new galleries opened. Surprisingly, the pandemic helped to establish more frequent contact with Yad Vashem and meant that a good working relationship was already established by the time the visit took place.

Undeniably one of the biggest challenges was the pandemic. The hope was for the visit to take place prior to the new Holocaust galleries opening at IWM London, which would inform the development of the museum’s new Holocaust Learning Programme. However, one of the surprising successes of the visit was that I was able to establish a good working relationship with Yad Vashem, which meant that time could be utilised in a much more efficient way by the time the visit was able to actually take place.

This included being able to explore the vast grounds of the Yad Vashem complex including the Dr. Miriam and Sheldonv G. Adelson Educational Leadership Academy, The Holocaust History Museum, Art Museum, The Hall of Names, The Visual Centre, the special exhibition ‘Flashes of Memory: Photography during the Holocaust’, Yad Vashem’s Synagogue and the various memorials that are within the grounds. Having the time to explore all the areas of Yad Vashem gave me a better understanding of the governance of the organisation, how learning is embedded and fits within it and how this can be replicated at IWM. Visiting the ‘Flashes of Memory’ special exhibition was particularly pertinent due to its focus on the Oneg Shabbat archive from the Warsaw ghetto. IWM has on display in The Holocaust Galleries one of the remaining boxes in which the archive was stored and buried in the ground in, which is a focal point of the new learning programme.

My main point of contact is Yiftach Meiri who is the UK Desk, Head of Overseas Education and Training Department at The International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. During my visit I was able to have an open and honest discussion with Yiftach about the challenges and opportunities facing the Holocaust education sector in the UK and what this means for both IWM and Yad Vashem. Yiftach was generous enough to organise a meeting with the head of his department, Dr Noa Mkayton and we discussed the wider context of the current climates in both Europe and Israel for Holocaust education and what both IWM and Yad Vashem can do to work together on this. During my time at Yad Vashem, I was also able to visit the memorials to the Holocaust across the site and observe the learning programme at The Holocaust History Museum, in particular those for young people in the Israel Defence Force visiting as part of their service. I also met with teachers from Australia and New Zealand who were taking part in a weeklong teacher training programme at The International School for Holocaust Studies.

My experience of this visit has been an overwhelmingly positive one for my personal development. ICOM UK’s support has given me confidence in my capabilities, both generally at this point in my early career in museums and as an advocate for Holocaust museology and education within the sector on an international scale. My visit has greatly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of the history of the Holocaust and the impact international interpretation and engagement on this challenging subject can have on the learners that you are working with and in the engagement programmes that museums can produce on the subject.

This will particularly benefit the engagement work of IWM and Yad Vashem for sharing best practice and comparative analysis on the cultural sensitivities and contemporary climate in which students in the UK and Israel are engaging with the Holocaust. For example, we had comprehensive discussions on the discourse around anti-Semitism in Britain, with Lord Mann’s recent report on Anti-Jewish Hatred Tackling Antisemitism in the UK and the conversations happening amongst teachers and students in the UK as to why the Holocaust is the only compulsory subject on the national curriculum yet Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade is not.

In terms of advice for museum professionals new to working internationally, or undertaking international visits for the first time, I would offer the following:

  • Make sure you have an awareness of the culture, language and both the historical and current context in which your visiting organisation is working within.
  • Familiarise yourself with the organisation’s core values before your visit and do some mapping work to see if and how these align with those of your own organisation. This will help to establish shared aims and provide a springboard for your conversations and partnership to work from. 
  • On a practical level, book direct flights where you can as it just makes everything easier. Savings can be made if you’re able to stay in self-catered accommodation. Make sure you factor in your mobile phone data allowance if you’re travelling outside of the EU.
  • Always keep your receipts!
  • If you’re ever unsure about anything related to your visit, ICOM UK are really approachable, supportive, and understanding, so do reach out to them for any advice that you may need with your visit.  

Following my visit, I am working with IWM’s Stakeholder Relationships and Partnerships team as part of a wider project of mapping IWM’s international relationships and future work with other organisations. Since I was awarded my grant, I have had regular check-ins with Yiftach which we are continuing following my visit so that we can act as critical friends and share best practice on our upcoming projects around Holocaust engagement.

We are also exploring future avenues of funding to produce specific programmes, such as launching an invigorated accredited teacher training programme for IWM and Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Learning Programmes that will also be targeted to youth workers and student organisations in both the UK and Israel.

Longer term plans include IWM preparing to mark the Second World War Centenary and 100 years from the events of the Holocaust in 2039, with the creation and evolution of a digital space for learners to engage with this subject and our expertise. Through longitudinal research and consultation with other potential international partners, stakeholders, teachers, learners, and technology companies, we hope to design and realise a Digital Holocaust Learning Portal which responds to sector needs. It is anticipated this could include content and resource aggregators, unique content, facilities for international networking and knowledge exchange and an international research hub. 

In summary, IWM and Yad Vashem previously had an informal partnership, however since a restructure and staffing changes in the Public Engagement and Learning team this sadly stopped. This visit has helped to re-establish and formalise this partnership, building a strong and lasting relationship for sharing best practice in Holocaust museology and education.

My visit to Yad Vashem has had a profound impact on my knowledge, understanding and awareness on the international developments in historiography, museology, learning and engagement on the Holocaust within a global context that simply would not have been possible without the support of ICOM UK.

Clare Lawlor, Producer – Public Engagement and Learning, IWM

This visit has enhanced Clare’s own subject knowledge around Holocaust education, which she has been able to share with other members of the department and the wider team. It has informed Clare’s thinking around how Holocaust education can be approached, as well as providing her with the opportunity to make connections with other organisations in this field.

Claire Shaw, Senior Producer – Public Engagement and Learning, IWM