Imperial War Museum in clash over planned Holocaust memorial

Fear that learning centre could compete with new digital galleries to open at London museum in 2020

Plans to erect a national Holocaust memorial next to parliament have become embroiled in controversy, only weeks before the winning design is due to be announced.

The £50m memorial and education centre, initiated in 2013 by David Cameron when he was prime minister, has attracted some of the biggest names in art and architecture, including Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread. A jury to select the winning entry has met and an announcement from the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation is expected this month.

But in an extraordinary intervention, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) is calling for the plan for an educational complex below the memorial to be reconsidered because it will compete with its own new Holocaust centre, opening in 2020, less than a mile away.

Meanwhile, people who live near the memorial’s site – Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the houses of parliament and on the banks of the Thames – are stepping up objections to the proposal. They say it would mean the loss of much-valued green space, increase pollution and traffic, and require a heavy security presence.

IWM, which has been the national museum for the Holocaust since 2000, has welcomed the memorial, but has raised concerns about the inclusion of an education centre. It says it is likely to replicate its own advanced plans for a £33.5m “digitally enabled learning and events suite”, and the public should be offered one facility, rather than competing educational resources.Last month Prince William visited the museum to discuss its plans for new galleries and meet Holocaust survivors in his role as president of the War Museum Foundation.

According to IWM, more than 600,000 people visit its Holocaust exhibition each year, including 25,000 schoolchildren and teachers. Its new and expanded galleries will include new survivor testimonies, objects and original material and will present the Holocaust narrative within the wider context of the second world war.

Diane Lees, the museum’s director-general, said: “Our ground-breaking new galleries and digitally enabled learning suite will allow us to transform the way we present the second world war and the Holocaust and, through our new narrative, enable visitors to engage with events that may be less well understood and known to them.”

She added: “We urge the reconsideration of the creation of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s learning centre at Victoria Tower Gardens, [which is] less than a mile away from us, as it will very much divide the public offer on learning about the Holocaust.”

Sir Trevor Pears of the Pears Foundation, which supports Holocaust education in the UK, also welcomed the memorial plan. “It is bold in its vision, and addresses some real concerns expressed by survivors, educators and heritage professionals,” he said. But, he added, the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation “must not miss the opportunity to work in partnership with existing provision ... if it is to succeed in its mission”. Duplication of effort and resources should be avoided.

The memorial foundation said its centre would be complementary to the war museum’s offering.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of the memorial foundation, said: “Standing in the shadow of our parliament, the new Holocaust memorial and learning centre will become an internationally recognised symbol against hatred. Its learning centre will use the stories of the Holocaust to explore antisemitism, extremism, Islamophobia, homophobia and other forms of hatred and prejudice in society today.”

Holocaust memorial Day is commemorated at the Imperial War Museum, which is objecting to a new learning centre at the memorial.
Holocaust memorial Day is commemorated at the Imperial War Museum, which is objecting to a new learning centre at the memorial. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

He added: “As IWM has previously agreed, the learning centre and the war museum galleries have different remits, with distinct yet complementary objectives. We see no reason why the two cannot continue to work together.”

His view that the two educational centres were complementary was echoed by Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary.

However, local residents have also raised concerns about the new centre. Barbara Weiss, an architect whose company is based near the gardens, said the proposal was “completely contrary” to London’s ambition to protect its green spaces. “The designs are deceptive. They show a very idealistic and abstract view that doesn’t correspond to reality,” she said. Emergency staircases, service access and signage were absent from the drawings and models.The memorial’s backers “seem determined not to listen” to the local objections, she added. “There is a worry this will become a ‘Disneyworld’ Holocaust event, in a superficial, bling way. It seems it has to have a ‘wow’ factor, it has to be a ‘new attraction’. As someone who is half-Jewish and married to a Jew, I find that distasteful.”

Another local campaigner, Lucy Peck, said Victoria Tower Gardens was heavily used by residents and office workers, “who sit peacefully and watch activity on the river. It’s a surprisingly tranquil little London park that we don’t want to lose. And people might not feel comfortable taking their sandwiches into the park and sitting on top of a Holocaust memorial.”

People were concerned that security, already heavy around parliament, may need to be stepped up to protect a vulnerable site. “If locals were to be searched every time they enter the park, it would become unusable,” said Peck.

The memorial fund said its plan would be developed in consultation with the local community, and the park would remain accessible to the public. “The competition design brief was clear that the memorial should be visible and prominent but preserve as much as possible of the park’s open space,” said a spokesperson.

A full planning application would allow the views of local residents and other interested parties to be considered.


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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