The Proposed UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre: A study on Holocaust memorial architecture, the history of the UK’s memorial project, and a critique of its design and success
This paper aims to investigate the proposed UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre (UKHMLC), planned for Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, the history of Holocaust memorial architecture, and to critique the design and function of the UKHMLC as a successful Holocaust memorial. From its inception in 2015 with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Britain’s Promise to Remember Holocaust Commission, the UKHMLC has been a highly debated topic, and is still yet to be given planning permission for construction. This dissertation will first examine the genre of Holocaust memorial architecture and uses the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) as a comparison to the UKHMLC. Then, I analyse the history of the UKHMLC from the beginning of the project and how it has progressed. Finally, using the information I found in my research, I critique the plans for the UKHMLC on if it will perform as a successful Holocaust memorial for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre (UKHMLC) was announced by PM Cameron in January 2014. By January 2023, the UKHMLC had not yet been built and, like many Holocaust memorials before it, has become a topic of debate because of its design and location, yet no one has questioned whether the UKHMLC will perform as a successful Holocaust memorial.
In investigating the history of the UKHMLC project and its proposed design, my dissertation aims to answer the questions: What is Holocaust memorial architecture? How did the UKHMLC come to fruition? Correspondingly, I ask, what is a successful Holocaust memorial, and will the UKHMLC perform as one?
The first section of this dissertation includes a literature review that analyses the history of Holocaust memorial architecture and several ways in which scholars on Holocaust and memorial architecture have defined successful memorials. This serves as the theoretical outline for my critique and is followed by a brief history of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) as a comparison to the UKHMLC, as the Prime Minister’s Commission found inspiration in USHMM’s joint function and use of education and technology. USHMM was also chosen as it is a structure that has existed now for almost thirty years, and one I have visited many times. These visits have informed me of what makes a successful Holocaust memorial and serves as a prime example of an educational institution situated within a memorial space. The second section is the largest section of this paper and addresses the UKHMLC, starting with the beginning of the Prime Minister’s Commission, which led to the publishing of the Britain’s Promise to Remember report. BPR outlined the status of Britain’s Holocaust education, which is further discussed within this section. This information is followed by a description of the design as it was presented by the winning design team, followed by a brief literature review of what other scholars in memorial architecture have written about the sacredness of the UKHMLC. The section brings readers up to the present and discusses the present issues surrounding the project and its relationship with Parliament. The culmination of this paper comes last, with my critique on the UKHMLC and its future success, according to the resources presented throughout this paper.
As I did not have a physical structure to study and observe how people interacted with it to determine if the UKHMLC would perform as a successful Holocaust memorial, I instead, used published scholarship on the genre of Holocaust memorials as part of my methodology, gaining insight from scholars in the field such as James E. Young, Harold Marcuse, David Tollerton, Andy Pearce, and others to inform my critique. Public materials about the project and design from the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF), Parliament, and the design team supplied me with the necessary details about the UKHMLC. I also interviewed Sally Sealey, a member of the BPR Commission and now Head of the Secretariat of the UKHMF and Chief of Staff to Lord Eric Pickles, to gain more insight into the project, as she had been a part of the project since its inception. It was also important to me that as part of my research that I also interviewed someone with a personal connection to the Holocaust. I spoke with Stephen Kapos, a child Holocaust survivor, trained architect, and former member of the Labour Party, who proved to be a valuable insight into what makes a Holocaust memorial successful.
Through my research, I found that the UKHMLC was born out of the desire for Britain to have a national memorial that solidifies Britain’s commitment to Holocaust education and memorialization. Too long had the issues regarding Holocaust remembrance and education, denial and revisionism, been swept aside in larger British culture, and labelled as a problem for the Anglo-Jewish community to fix. The Hyde Park memorial proved to be insufficient and unsuccessful, but it was also a product of its time in British society when the Holocaust was reserved to Jewish communities and academia. As Holocaust memorialization became popularised in the late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century, and as Holocaust education has improved on a national level, the need for a state-sponsored national memorial and educational centre was clear to Parliament. The UKHMLC aims to rectify this; however, the memorial part of this project is not the answer—it’s the Learning Centre. Britain does not need another memorial; it needs a functional space that serves a purpose—to educate. The Learning Centre will bring forth a new era of Holocaust education to Britain, supplying the average visitor with not only knowledge of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides and how to spread the lessons taught by survivors but also how they, as individuals, can help to create a world where prejudice and hate do not exist, and something like the Holocaust can never happen again. In short, this project will serve as a solidified unit against antisemitism, racism, and Holocaust revisionism. It is a project that seeks to amplify the voices of survivors of all genocides—Jewish or not—in an environment where hatred and denial will not be tolerated.
Fig. 1: UKHMLC at night.