The award-winning redesign and redevelopment of the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (MHM) by Kerstin Thompson Architects can now be enjoyed by all, following its recent reopening to the public.

It marks the culmination of a 10-year design and planning exercise – not to mention approximately five years in construction, and a new chapter for CEO Jayne Josem, the MHM staff, and its cherished community and stakeholders. The redesign, according to Josem, has been transformative in shifting the experience of the museum for staff and visitors alike.

It all begins with light and Thompson and team have thoughtfully put the focus on bringing the light into the building. Given the subject matter MHM staff deal with day to day, Thompson was determined to release the team from their previously cramped setting of tiny offices and a tight kitchenette and critically change their experience of work. “And she really achieved that,” says Josem. “We’re dealing with dark subject matter and … there is a fair percentage of the team working very intimately with the Holocaust as a subject matter.”

Josem points to the way Thompson and team have injected light throughout the building so that people’s day-to-day work is experienced in a warm and inviting environment. “There’s spaces for people to have lunch together inside and out that are really beautiful,” notes Josem – a far cry from the museum in its original guise. “It’s the backdrop to support a really nice culture in the workplace.”

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MHM – now world-class in its facilities – encompasses two museums, one of which is dedicated to a younger audience, and a stunning memorial space (still in completion phase).

Thompson, very much aware of the darkness of subject matter for visitors, too, has ensured the circulation spines are generous, lined with wood and there’s a lot of natural lighting coming. “Her philosophy was around creating a comfortable environment in which people would encounter an uncomfortable and unsettling content.” While other Holocaust museums intentionally make their environments stark and dark, Thompson has consciously kept public areas light and bright.

The Memorial Room, designed by Stephen Jolson of Jolson, is a place to pause and reflect, and “it’s powerful to be in there”, says Josem. Jolson has designed the space with layer upon layer of references. The walls will be lines with metal Star Of Davids in three different tones, and families and descendants can contribute names of victims or survivors. The effect for the viewer will be as if entering a sea of names, and an array of floating stars, suspended above an expanse of polished granite stone.

Of the exhibition content, Josem explains that the MHM team, all Holocaust experts, use their knowledge and curatorial skills to pose bigger questions and invite wider conversations around human rights as a concept, the nature of moral dilemma, our responsibilities and indeed our own place in the world today. “Everything is inviting that question about what’s going on today… it’s up to people to form their own views.”

For students and younger visitors, there are innate teachings around critical thinking: how do you look at documents, how do you look at photos, how do you look beyond their face value to analyse them?

And it’s not all dark content matter. There are uplifting stories of resilience, justice, courage, bravery, truth, fairness and hope – all there to be explored. “It’s not just the big stories, we’re also looking at little things… little acts of decency that have high impact,” says Josem.

It’s not an easy thing to visit a Holocaust museum and Josem along with Kerstin Thompson Architects, master planners Tim Rob Don Dow and Leigh Whittaker, and exhibition designers, Thylacine, have worked hard to ensure that visitors feel supported throughout their visit and that it is in fact a facilitated journey. “It’s not just about designed the physical space, but also designing the visitor experience has been a really important thing.”

MHM runs two permanent exhibitions: Everybody Had a Name which breaks the expansive and tragic events of the Holocaust into small stories, illustrated by powerful photographs and evocative artefacts. Hidden: Seven Children Saved sees visitors learn about the experiences of seven child survivors of the Holocaust, who all attributed their survival to the kindness of others.

Melbourne Holocaust Museum
mhm.org.au

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