This is a crosspost from my Exhibitfiles account – an attempt to get me blogging more, because blogging makes me feel more connected to people, and I miss comments!
Fire in my Heart opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on October 13, 2010, and is running to August 7, 2011. With a mission statement to “educate people of all ages and backgrounds about the broad tapestry of Jewish life in the 20th and 21st centuries—before, during, and after the Holocaust” the museum endeavours to portray a very human face to Jewish culture and to history, and the temporary exhibition Fire in my Heart is a very good example of this: telling the story of one specific Jewish woman who lost her life working to free Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz.
The intended audience, according to the Museum’s mission statement, claims to be people of ‘all ages and backgrounds’, although I’m inclined to believe that the exhibition was implicitly designed with an audience in mind composed of Jewish people, or at least people who are familiar with the name and the works of Hannah Senesh; not an invalid assumption given the Museum’s overarching focus. There is very little introduction to how Hannah became a well known Israeli hero; although her poems are frequently quoted throughout the exhibition, the more well known ones are provided out of context on their own. The hymn Eli Eli, for instance, is included in the final video with the implied assumption the audience will be familiar with it. Similarly with Blessed is the Match, presented with an entire wall dedicated to it near the end of the third section of the exhibit.
The exhibition is arranged in a simple chronology, from Hannah’s childhood through her life in Agricultural School in Palestine, the Kibbutz Sidot Yam and her enlistment, to her capture and execution and her legacy. With this decision, the Museum is able to tell Hannah’s story in a way that makes her human and relatable. Starting with her fairly typical childhood, the visitor follows her short life through the decisions she makes and the world changing around her, and we are shown how someone we could see ourselves in, could come to be executed as a traitor.
Fitting an exhibition about a writer, the primary material on display are Hannah’s words, reprinted in various sizes and formats across the walls of the exhibition in a format that remains consistent, while the flooring and the colours of the walls vary. Each section is introduced with an especially large quotation, serving as gallery markers. The words dominate the exhibit and are displayed in a visual/spatial dynamic that make them just as interesting as the objects, and the physical space with the words on the walls mean that colour and spatial design play into each other to create an experience, that simply reading a biography would not recreate.
In the first “childhood” section, the floor is carpeted and the walls painted a warm yellow. This section is where the idea of her ordinary childhood is rooted, an idea that then resonates throughout the exhibition. Trappings of her childhood on display include a chess set, the newspaper produced by herself and her brother, sketches of a dress, and her very first diary. The most pervasive element of this section, though, is an audio visual display of excerpts from her teenage diary, read aloud by a female voice while the words are displayed on screen – in the same font and format as the quotations on the walls – along with associated pictures.
On the quiet Sunday afternoon I revisited the exhibition, the voice recording over played everything – even in the area marking her time in Hungarian prison before her execution, there could be heard the young woman’s voice:
When I think of an above average person, I don’t necessarily think of a famous person, but of a great soul, and I would like to be a great soul.
This was not the only aural element to the exhibition: there was music playing in the childhood section and in the agricultural section, where a sound dome focused the sound on a specific location, handheld devices in the “prison” section gave a very personal, intimate experience, and a video at the end played to a specific small group of benches, However, it was the teenager’s diary; her hopes, dreams and reflections that, by not being contained within any structural boundaries, resonated throughout the exhibition, constantly reminding the visitor of the girl Hannah has once been.
Hannah’s continued humanity is supported by the selection of quotes that support her sense of humour, attachments to her family, and interests in romance and art. In the “Palestine” section, dealing with her life at agricultural college, the selected quotations provide at entertaining glimpse into her life, including an extended saga about her struggles to obtain boots from her mother, and her relationship with the cattle. Also on display in the “Palestine” section is her camera, illustrating her love of photography, and her record covers, recalling the love of music that was introduced in the previous section. Hannah’s teenage diaries reveal her thoughts on romance and boys, and we are given an insight into her brief romance before enlisting in the army.
Along with the excerpts from Hannah’s writing, are displayed captions in marked green boxes with white text, giving brief facts about the events of the world at the time, juxtaposed with excerpts which we are encouraged to believe are Hannah’s responses to these events. The start of the war, for example, is presented on the same wall as a quote saying “The war we feared has begun.” Hannah’s interest in politics is thus displayed not in an isolated section, but as an ongoing thread throughout the exhibition, explaining her motives but never dominating her entirely. Her Zionism, for example, is introduced almost casually with the line “I don’t know if I have mentioned this, but I have become a Zionist.” It is important, but never the only thing happening in her life. Her only romance is displayed just before the section on military service and “Prison,” showing that even before going into the army, she had other things on her mind.
The fourth section in the exhibition is dedicated to Hannah’s “Legacy”, and ties into a thread that runs throughout the core exhibition as well; that tragedy is not the end and that people endure. After Hannah’s execution, the carpet on the exhibition floor, that disappeared when she went to Palestine, reappears, and the walls become a light blue. These light blue walls also include the barred window looking back into the section devoted to Hannah’s time in prison, effectively representing the ‘outside’ of that dark time. Shelves of books devoted to Hannah’s life, and a video talking about the lasting impression that she left on the people she knew, pull out an important thread in the story of a hero: that their stories do not end with death. The legacy section is introduced by a reproduction of Hannah’s poem Blessed is the Flame, and ends with the following quotation from a letter to her mother:
There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth long after they themselves are gone. There are people whose glorious memory continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way.
I am not Jewish, and I had not heard of Hannah Senesh (or Eli, Eli) before visiting the exhibition, but I found much to provide relevance to me in the exhibition, particularly aided by the portrayal of Hannah as a relatable, relatively ordinary young woman with very human attachments and worry. Rooting the entire exhibition in her childhood and her family, and telling the story of her life in her own words made Hannah seem more real to me, as someone who shared those same childhood dreams and fears, watching how her circumstances led her to make her decisions bridged the gaps between us.
This was, I think, a large part of the exhibition design, and a very effective one – to allow the visitor to get to know Hannah and to feel that they understand her as a person, and not as a writer or a parachutist.