Controversy over immersive experiences at Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a multi-million dollar project to commemorate the largest single Nazi massacre, is facing criticism of its controversial artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and his proposals for exhibits.

The site used to be in the Soviet Union but is now located in Ukraine. Russian film director, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy was made the site’s Artistic Director in December.

However, The Times of Israel reports that dozens of Ukrainian artists and historians have penned an open letter to demand his removal from the project.

Controversy surrounding Khrzhanovsky’s films

In this letter, cosignatories said that “Mr. Khrzhanovsky’s appointment as artistic director has already tarnished the Memorial’s reputation and is undermining the achievements of the previous three years of work, while the Center faces a brewing international scandal.”

Khrzhanovskiy has recently come under fire for his recent film ‘Dau: Degeneration’. A police investigation is currently underway to investigate claims that his hyper-realistic filming methods were damaging to the actors, some of whom were minors.

Khrzhanovskiy’s nomination preceded the resignations of several key museum staff members, such a former Director General, Hennadiy Verbylenko and former Executive Director Yana Barinova.

According to the Kyiv Post, Barinova and her team left because they disagreed with Khrzhanovskiy’s plans.

Disagreements over the future of the museum

Barinova said that “When the scope of authority entrusted to the artistic director was announced, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to perform our functions and guarantee that the project will move in the direction that we previously declared.”

Khrzhanovskiy’s plans for the museum are not yet public. He will present them to the Board in June and once they are approved they will be released to the public.

An immersive experience?

However, Khrzhanovskiy has hinted at his plans in recent interviews. He told Novoye Vremya radio on April 27 that “A person should come there and gain experience.” His presentation to the Board in September has since been leaked to the media.

According to reports the presentation suggests that vistors will “go on a challenging and sometimes shocking emotional journey with ethical choices at its core.” There will be “personalization questionnaires” to tailor the experiences to the individual rather like The Museum of Future Experiences in NYC.

High tech such as holograms will be used as well as VR zones to place “visitors in the role of victims, collaborators, Nazis and prisoners of war who had to burn corpses, amongst others.” These ideas, if true, take the idea of immersive education to the extreme.

In contrast, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum forbids role-playing on the site.

Former Chief Historian of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Karel Berkhoffm, was appointed in 2017 but has since left. He criticised Khrzhanovskiy’s plans, saying that they “seem to be in conflict with the standards that exist for developing memorial museums, such as the International Memorial Museums Charter.”

The former head of the project’s exhibitions development group, Dieter Bogner, said that “With these ideas sketched out in the presentation, the core exhibition dangerously approaches the impression of a Holocaust ‘Disney’ rather than a place of remembrance” in his resignation letter in November.

Awaiting the results of investigation

The museum released a statement regarding the recent controversy surrounding Khrzanovskiy. In this statement, it said that the museum’s “main goal is to create a memorial center and to respectfully commemorate the victims” of the site. It continued saying that the museum is “waiting for conclusions of the investigation and the respective expert study if one is to be commissioned.”

The statement stressed “that all accusations addressed now to Illya Khrzanovskiy are made based on emotions and subjective thoughts built upon speculations and assumptions. We believe that final decisions have to be made following objective conclusions of the law enforcement.”

Khrzhanovskiy’s changes to the museum’s concept mean that the opening has been delayed from 2021 to 2026. Furthermore, the architectural design that won the previous design competition in 2019 will be changed.