Understanding The Evidence Room

Yesterday I visited the Evidence Room exhibit, currently at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The Evidence Room, first shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale, is a representation of the evidence displayed at the 2000 libel trial of Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt had been sued in a British court by Holocaust denier David Irving, and had the burden of proving that the Nazis had indeed exterminated over a million Jews and other undesirables in gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Evidence Room includes scale models of a gas column and gas chamber door (shown in the picture on the link to this post) as well as photographs and documents. The photographs and documents are constructed of raised white plaster on a white background. They can be touched and felt, but are hard to see. The choice of white plaster has a number of meanings. White plaster is used for forensic reconstructions. Holocaust deniers were attempting a white-washing. White in many cultures symbolizes ghostliness, ghastliness, and death.

When the Russians were advancing on Poland, the Nazis attempted to destroy the evidence of their crimes against humanity. They did not succeed. There were accounts of holocaust survivors and aerial photographs of the buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most significantly, the Nazis forgot about their detailed architectural drawings. From these various strands Lipstadt’s lawyers assembled a case that convinced the judges, both at the original trial and on appeal.

Critical to the case was the architectural evidence. The key witness on that subject was University of Waterloo architectural history professor Robert Jan van Pelt, who had studied and written about the Nazi’s architectural plans for their death factories.

The Evidence Room is a difficult exhibit, not only emotionally but conceptually. The white on white documentation does not readily reveal itself. It needs a knowledgeable docent. I happened to visit when a brilliant docent, Robin Mednick, was leading the tour. She explained the history of Auschwitz, the operation of gas chambers, and the Irving-Lipstadt litigation very comprehensively and very clearly.

While the content of her explanation was heart-breaking and enraging, her tone of voice was very calm and matter-of-fact. I asked her about this after the tour, and she responded that such a manner of presentation was essential to lead people who are feeling strong emotions through the exhibit. She also senses that the exhibit is inhabited by the spirits of those who were martyred, and that a clear and convincing presentation is the best way to preserve their collective story and honor their memory.

In addition to the emotions this exhibit evoked for me, it also had me thinking about truth and lies. Lying is easy. All it takes is repeating something simplistic or self-serving with conviction. Establishing the truth is much harder. It requires gathering evidence painstakingly from as many sources as possible, interpreting the evidence, posing hypotheses, and testing hypotheses against the evidence.

The Evidence Room is not only a demonstration of the horrors of the holocaust, and a statement about the perversion of the architectural profession, but it is also testimony to the importance of science as truth-seeking and truth-telling.

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