Research Seminar Review: Heather Hollins, Disability and the Holocaust (29th January 2007)

By Amy Jane Barnes

The history of disability and the Holocaust is missing. This was the premise that Heather Hollins began her research seminar which drew on her current PhD research and work at the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. The development of the eugenics programme by the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1940s, which reached its ultimate and terrible expression with the execution of thousands of men, women and children with mental and physical disabilities as a precursor to the T4 programme; a genocide which – as Heather reminded us – counted amongst its victims people with disabilities (including those with mental illnesses and learning difficulties), homosexuals, the Romany and others deemed to be ‘useless eaters’, as well as Jewish people; those not considered fit for life by the regime in their quest for racial purity.

Heather put forward a persuasive argument for the urgent incorporation of the voices and experiences of disabled survivors into Holocaust museums and exhibitions, more usually confined solely to discussions of the Jewish experience. While the Holocaust Centre, as an example, does discuss the experience of disabled people during the Holocaust, it is presented as contextualisation for a more familiar Jewish-focused narrative. There are no exhibition spaces in the UK that explore disability and the Holocaust in depth, which to Heather’s mind, mirrors the continued marginalisation of disability in wider contemporary society.

In order to redress the balance, Heather advocated an emancipatory methodological approach, which would help to reconnect disabled people with their history and crucially, enable them to wrest authority from museum curators to take the lead in the development of representations of disability in the museum. Following on from the outcomes of the RCMG project ‘Buried in the Footnotes’, urgent work is required to map existing knowledge, archives and collections to uncover information already in existence and to research and gather testimonies from disabled survivors.

In conclusion, Heather asserted the role of museums to reflect the experiences of disability, and in so doing, shaping contemporary and future attitudes to disability. With the mapping of the human genome and advances in genetic medicine, interest in the concept of the ‘perfect human’ has remerged. Museums, through balanced reflection on issues related to disability offer us the opportunity to chart and navigate contemporary controversies.

All in all this was an engaging and thought-provoking seminar, which introduced those in attendance to one aspect of Heather’s research project, which promises to be an inspirational and important study into the representation of disability in the museum environment.


Ceri said…
I was really unhappy to have missed this seminar because I am very interested in this topic - relevant to RCMG projects as well as to wider contemporary issues. It makes me feel really uncomfortable that although science and medicine are used for a lot of good in this world there is also this pursuit of 'perfection' and the eradication of anything which is deemed 'imperfect' or called an 'impairment' by our society. The social model of disability has done much to open my eyes to the fact that it is society that makes people disabled by ensuring their exclusion from the 'normal' not the 'impairment' itself. Exclusion which can be justified through portraying disabled people as charity cases or victims rather than individuals who are capable of living independent lives. Of course there are chronic illnesses and conditions where the reality is not so black and white, nor is there a simple solution to inclusion. But the debates must be had and we should not shy away from dealing with complex issues.

Thanks Amy for the review of the seminar :)

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