This article originally appeared in Fast Company.
The harrowing story of the Holocaust has been told in countless museum exhibitions around the world. But few have attempted to recount the events for an audience of 9-year-olds.
This is exactly what the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City has done with a new exhibition titled Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark. Opening this Sunday, it is the museum’s first exhibition for children, particularly those ages 9 and older.
Courage to Act focuses on a tremendously inspiring event that occurred 80 years ago, when Danes from all walks of life teamed up to ferry about 7,000 Danish Jews—or 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population—from Nazi-occupied Denmark to Sweden.
According to the museum, about 300 vessels—from fishing boats to kayaks—made the perilous journey across the Øresund Sound separating the two countries. Since then, the Danish rescue efforts have become known as one of the most exceptional examples of mass resistance in modern history.
The museum decided to develop an exhibition for children to create a different Holocaust narrative in America—one that elicits empathy but also agency from an early age. “As the number of Holocaust survivors decreases and we confront resurgent anti-Semitism, we must proactively engage new generations in the fight for a better world,” Jack Kliger, museum president and CEO, said in a press release. “Our charge is to inspire and equip young people to be compassionate upstanders and leaders.”
As one might imagine, such aspirations posed numerous challenges. How do you convey the truth without terrifying or dispiriting elementary-school kids? How do you educate them about something that happened 80 years ago while emphasizing the relevance of those events in the present?
To navigate these complexities, the museum partnered with experience design studio Local Projects, known for its work on the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan and Greenwood Rising in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At first, Local Projects dipped into a vast archive of photographs, testimonies, and interviews with Holocaust survivors, most of which were recorded in the late 1990s. The exhibition is peppered with quotes from these interviews, and filled with contextual facts that are conveyed using simple language and a non-patronizing tone.
But the designers didn’t just rely on historical facts to tell this story. One of the smartest decisions they took was to create three characters—ages 10 to 16 or so—that visitors can follow throughout the exhibition. These characters, presented as holographs, were inspired by stories and memories of real people, but they are fictional.
The founder of Local Projects, Jake Barton, explains this was, in large part, a strategic decision. “Holocaust museums are very sensitive about the full-blown authenticity and accuracy of their narrative,” he says, noting that exhibitions on the subject tend to be highly vetted and scrutinized. “Given that context, trying to re-create an actual person’s experience is just too problematic.”
Instead, the team gave each character a storyline that unfolds throughout the exhibition. At a fish market, we meet Rebekka, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia. She is portrayed by Imogen Williams, whose grandfather in real life escaped Denmark on a rowboat. Rebekka shares how she ended up in Copenhagen, then grapples with the Nazi occupation. (The actors sound American in the interest of conveying a relatable message to the kids visiting.) Later, she appears at a desk behind a glass window. Visitors can pick up an old rotary phone and listen to her ponder why she’s writing letters to her parents that remain unanswered.
Then comes the pièce de résistance, as Local Projects content lead Caroline Blockus calls it. In a different room, the team re-created a replica of the Gerda III, one of the boats that crossed over to Sweden. The original boat is moored at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, but as the studio’s physical design director, Jenny Wong, explains, the team used a computer model to create a slightly smaller version of the original.
The model is accompanied by a projection-mapping sequence that choreographs the crossing using dark silhouettes overlayed with survivor interviews. From time to time, the silhouettes crystallize into the characters we met and we catch a glimpse of Rebekka crouching inside the boat. Later, we meet her again in Sweden, where she is working as a nanny and studying to be a nurse.
The exhibition’s target audience may be young minds, but the techniques Local Projects employed certainly struck a chord with my adult brain, too. That’s because Courage to Act doesn’t just convey the facts through a succession of artefacts encased in glass. It tells a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And like every good story, it gives us characters to root for.