Finding the voice to tell difficult stories 

By Karen Herland

Several students of the Curating Difficult Knowledge seminar immerse themselves in the environment of the <em>We Lived on a Map</em> installation. Magnifying glass

Several students of the Curating Difficult Knowledge seminar immerse themselves in the environment of the We Lived on a Map installation.

At first glance, sitting on a tree stump listening to a digital recording, navigating a web site, flipping through a graphic novel or playing with a child’s wooden toy train have little to do with remembering the Holocaust.

But the students who immersed themselves in our first cross-listed History/Anthropology seminar on Curating Difficult Knowledge used these and other tools to translate Holocaust survivor testimonies into the present.

The seminar, developed by Erica Lehrer, Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography & Museology and member of the history faculty, immersed students in a demanding syllabus encompassing the role of memory, understanding oral testimony, and curatorial ethics, all while heeding the Latin root of the word curare: “to take care of.”

Each seminar project group worked within a different medium or environment. They incorporated principles discovered through reading and discussion, and based their curatorial projects on recorded testimonies selected by the course’s technical advisor, David Ward, from the collection at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.

Students presented their final projects on April 14. Each group discussed their creative visions and processes, including a number of stumbling blocks. The result, as Lehrer commented at the end of a more than three-hour session, “impressively embodied the ideas we raised in class.”

We Lived on a Map is built around a quote from one of the testimonials used to structure the piece. The work is framed around three podiums with listening stations surrounded by photos, tape inscribed with the names of regions currently experiencing conflict and blank pages inviting viewers’ comments.

“We left a whole lot open to interpretation,” said Lorna Roth, a professor in Communication Studies. “We wanted viewers to feel engaged.” She audited the course with the aim of enriching her research contribution to the five-year community-university collaborative project Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations, based in the History Department.

Roth initially thought of assembling a podcast from the testimony of Sonia Falda, a Montrealer who as a young woman had spent much of the Holocaust period in the Partisan movement. Falda’s passing comment “I felt safer in the woods” resonated deeply with all four group members and the project took a different direction. With supplementary testimonial material from Anna Heiss—another Montreal
survivor with similar experiences—they created an installation incorporating three central audio pieces.

“Everything in this room is here for a reason,” explained Vicky Chainey Gagnon, an UQAM PhD candidate who is curator of Bishop’s University’s Foreman Art Gallery, of the work.

The website group worked with a collection of watercolour-painted testimony by Holocaust survivor Arie Zinger, illuminated by his cousin’s spoken commentary. The students struggled with the fascinating but imperfect impressions received, mediated by image, time, and the memories of family members. Zinger’s son also commented on the works. His interview, plus alternate reactions to the artwork collected in campus corridors and recorded excerpts from project group meetings, all are incorporated in the final project.

The graphic novel group addressed ways in which individual experiences often differed from the archetypal Holocaust narrative. Their interpretation of testimony of Berel Bokser was attentive to the way his memories evoked the passage of time and distance, the fact that Bokser’s story was recounted as an adult but experienced as a child, and the frustrations they felt as curators when the directive style of the interviewer intruded upon the story being told.

The fourth project used images, toys, text and guided interactive play to move the story forward. Using the motif of a set of keys, viewers were invited to ‘unlock’ a sequence of testimonial elements as they moved through an elaborate installation.

The seminar’s theme also was the focus of a just-concluded interdisciplinary international conference at Concordia, co-presented by Lehrer and CRC Latin America historian Cynthia Milton of the Université de Montréal, with funding from SSHRC. The conference attracted more than 175 faculty, student and community participants.


Concordia University