Opinion: The Ottawa Holocaust Memorial is a place for solemn reflection, not photo ops
Mark Kristmanson is the former Executive Director of the National Capital Commission.
Last month, a disturbing misuse of Ottawa’s National Holocaust Monument came to light. A photographer posted images on Instagram of a sexy fashion shoot taken at the site, attesting not only to the monument’s striking visual presence, but also to its relative obscurity as a sacred place. Deeming the photographs “totally inappropriate”, MP Greg Fergus said he was “stunned by the lack of common sense (…) of all those involved”.
It’s not the first thoughtless use of this seminal commemoration as a backdrop: visitors taking selfies have also become the target of online criticism in recent years.
If people knew more about the genesis of the monument, could they understand its gravity?
In the late 2000s, university student Laura Grosman pointed out that Ottawa was the only wartime Allied capital not to have a Holocaust commemoration. An earlier attempt to house a memorial within the war museum failed in the 1990s. The tide turned in 2011 when Parliament unanimously passed the National Holocaust Monument Act. Initiated by then Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, the monument was unveiled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017.
This six-year turnaround, from start to finish, was exceptional for a major national commemoration. Twenty years have passed since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before the National War Memorial was unveiled by King George VI. Turning to London, the High Court last month overturned planning approval for the UK’s new Holocaust memorial, creating serious delays for the £100million monument (£160million). dollars) and the underground visitor center which was due to open last year in a park in Westminster. next to Parliament.
Remarkably, an earlier version of the London Memorial design was submitted by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye and Israeli designer Ron Arad to the National Capital Commission’s juried competition in 2015. Mr. Arad mesmerized the packed house with his Gnostic explanation of the enigmatic finned sculpture. . In the end, however, it was architect Daniel Libeskind’s disjointed Star of David, a design that intuitively advantaged the commission’s elongated triangular site on LeBreton Flats, that won out.
By organizing an international competition, the NCC attracted an exceptional list of designers. It was museum consultant Gail Lord who partnered Mr. Libeskind with Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky, University of Toronto historian Doris Bergen and Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier to form the winning consortium. The NCC provided advice to the government regarding site selection, public consultation, composition of the jury and expert advisors, and contracted the construction.
Setting a sensible budget target of $8.5 million, including $4.5 million to be raised through donations, greatly increased the chances of success. Securing private funding for state-led commemorations can never be taken for granted. A board of eminent Canadians was appointed to raise funds and provide advice, and they were successful on both counts.
As builders achieved unprecedented architectural expressions in cast concrete, Mr. Burtynsky embarked on a photographic pilgrimage through Eastern Europe. Subtly, he infused ominous pastoral images of Holocaust sites onto Mr. Libeskind’s giant cornerstones. Rare tenacious shrubs specified by Mr. Cormier have been selected and maintained for the rocky setting of the garden. Professor Bergen led the very busy task of developing the interpretive screen.
There is a book to be written on navigating long-cycle initiatives through mid-term government changes. It is to the credit of the federal parties that this project was carried out, even if it would be misleading to say that there were no tensions. These distracted from what was a moment of deep national reflection. Yet even though widespread public recognition has been delayed, the monument has garnered critical acclaim and architectural awards.
Under its heading “Landscape of Loss, Memory and Survival,” it filled a long-standing gap in our memorial landscape. Occupying its ground with jagged strength and austere beauty, deft in its craftsmanship, the National Holocaust Monument acknowledges Canada’s “None is Too Many” immigration policy that has resulted in countless Jewish deaths. Moreover, at the insistence of Vera Schiff and other survivors, it bears witness to universal themes of resistance and resilience.
No doubt these survivors would inspire visitors to photograph it often, if not endlessly, but for the right reasons.
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