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Emma King, director of the Holocaust Heritage & Learning Centre, tells JLife all about the project’s progress and her career in museum consultancy.

The Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association’s (HSFA) intention to open a Holocaust Heritage & Learning Centre for the North understandably garnered plenty of public attention when the plans were confirmed in 2015. Based at the University of Huddersfield and set to open in the spring of 2018, the project, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is now firmly underway. JLife spoke to Emma King, director of the centre, to get the inside track on all the latest developments.

Emma, who grew up in West Yorkshire, has spent 13 years working as a museum consultant in the county. Her career began with a first paid post at Liverpool Museum in 1998, before she eventually began her own freelance business in 2004. Of her path into the heritage sector, Emma says: “I’ve been fascinated by history since childhood. I did a degree in archaeology and history at Durham University and an MA in museum studies at the University of Leicester. I originally wanted to be an archaeologist, but I found that I was more interested in public history and interpretation, how the past is communicated to an audience, than I was in excavation.”

When the prospect of working on the centre full-time arose, Emma, who has delivered projects for the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the National Science and Media Museum and the Royal Armouries Museum, put her freelance business on ice to take up this new challenge.

Having previously worked with Leeds-based charity, the HSFA, Emma explains: “I first became involved with the HSFA about nine years ago. I didn’t know there were survivors living in Yorkshire and the possibility of meeting and working with them was too interesting to pass up. Since then I’ve worked on a few different projects and I’ve become very committed to the HSFA and the people involved with it.

“It has always been a survivor-led organisation and that remains the case now,” continues Emma. “This project is their legacy and it’s the survivors who are driving it forward – their stories will be at the heart of the exhibition and they are loaning objects and archive materials for us to put on display. We have a number of second generation survivors on our board, including our chair, Lilian Black, who has led and championed the project, so there is a close link with the families we represent and we remain involved with the Jewish community in Leeds.”

Central to the project, from the initial bid to gradual fruition, Emma has high hopes for the centre and what it can offer to local communities. “We spent about a year working on the bid,” says Emma. “We made a research trip to Germany in September 2015. We visited the concentration camp memorial sites, which had a lot to teach us about interpretation and archives but also about how a project like this can grow from small beginnings.”

On the resources visitors can expect at the centre, Emma adds: “We will have workshops available for primary and secondary schools that connect with the curriculum, to give students the kind of insights that they can’t get in the classroom. We are also developing a partnership with the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London (UCL) which is very exciting. UCL offer a fantastic programme of teacher education, so we’re working with them to bring that to Huddersfield.

“We’ve talked about running a book club, film nights, performances of music and dance that relate to Jewish life and culture before the war, and bringing in speakers, including Holocaust survivors. I would like it to become a place that survivors and their families can visit and feel proud that their legacy is not forgotten and is helping to educate future generations.”

On her own role within the centre, Emma speaks of a wide-reaching job, encompassing everything from project management to exhibition research, as well as being responsible for the HSFA’s archive, which includes interviews, photos, documents and personal memorabilia. And, on the progress of the centre, she states: “The project is going really well. The biggest challenge we face is time. We want to get [it] up and running as soon as possible. The subject matter we’re working with is sensitive and complex and there are numerous challenges in how we interpret it. We need to create a compelling exhibition that people will want to visit but do justice to the subject matter and to the people who did not survive.”

Sense of place is relevant to the forthcoming centre, as Emma elaborates: “I’m also very conscious that the stories we’re telling are rooted in Yorkshire – the events that brought survivors here happened on mainland Europe but the reason for us developing this project in this location is because they all found their way to the north of England and built their lives here. The way in which they each did that is fascinating in its own right.”

Emma also adds an apt thought that sums up the centre’s importance, concluding: “I came to Holocaust education through projects that focused on oral history and personal testimony. I was aware of the power of living witnesses in education, which is one of the reasons I was so interested in working with survivors. I’ve done a lot of reading and research in that time – but it’s the survivors themselves who have taught me the most.”