A frank experience

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
A touring exhibition on the Dutch heroine of the Holocaust is being used to teach children about attitudes and behaviour in the new millennium, writes Carolyn O'Grady

Anne Frank is a figure who has particular resonance for young people because, even in her appalling situation, many of her concerns were much the same as theirs.

This is why her diary is often used in schools as a way in to a study of the Holocaust. Children can identify with Anne's difficult relationship with her mother, her first encounter of love, her need for privacy, as well as her experience of imprisonment and racism, and with her fear and suffering.

The Anne Frank exhibition has been one of Britain's most visited touring exhibitions for many years. Now, aware of Anne's power to engage, its organisers have transformed it to encourage young people to reflect on a range of contemporary themes, most of them encountered in the dairy, as well as on the Holocaust.

"We wanted to bring Anne Frank into the 21st century," says Gillian Walnes, executive director of the Anne Frank Trust UK.

"Through Anne's writing we want to get children to think about attitudes and about behaviour - the exhibition is very much a journey of self-exploration and discovery."

Now called Anne Frank + You, the exhibition uses strong images, filmed interviews with young people and quotes from the diary to confront head-on issues including prejudice, democracy, moral responsibility, conflict, racism and bullying, as well as faith, identity, the right to wear religious symbols and the plight of child soldiers. It is currently on tour in Jersey and will shortly be visiting Essex.

At its heart is a reconstruction of Anne Frank's room in Amsterdam, empty except for copies of pictures of film stars and the British Royal family which she stuck to the walls. A film which includes views of the chestnut tree outside, which she used to track the seasons, is projected onto the window and the voice of a young actress reading excerpts from the diary can be heard.

Linked to the room is the "Holocaust tunnel", a chronological exploration of the background to Anne's life and of crimes against humanity, which ends with the only known film footage of her - watching a wedding from a balcony.

There are sections on contemporary issues as well. Here children will be drawn to exhibits which reflect their own concerns - whether they are on racism, bullying, political engagement or the lives of refugees. Especially compelling is filmed footage on small screens showing young people of many races and religions talking about their own experiences.

The sections pull no punches. "Monkey chants on the terraces", "a black teenager stabbed to death" and "mass murder" are among topics in the racism section, juxtaposed with the recently made Say No to Racism football video, a film of young people talking, and quotes from the diary. It is meaty stuff and young people will need time to digest it.

The exhibition, say the organisers, is aimed primarily at Years 7 and 8, but recently, Year 6 teacher Paul Sutton took a group from St Joseph's RC primary school in Islington, north London, as part of "a massive project" on Anne Frank, during which they created "Wanted" posters of Anne as might be written by the Nazis. They also emailed Miep Gies, a Dutch woman who preserved the diary, and wrote personal accounts.

Children loved the reconstruction of Anne's room, and related particularly to the parts dealing with bullying and racism, he says. "They seemed particularly moved by the picture of a child warrior in Sierra Leone carrying a sub-machine gun and a teddy bear".

At the end of the exhibition visitors can sign The Anne Frank Declaration for Young People in which they commit to strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference - a world in which everyone is treated fairly.

The Anne Frank Trust UK, tel: 020 7284 5858; info@annefrank.org.uk. 'Anne Frank + You' will be in Essex from October 2-29 at South Essex College, Southend on Sea; Milngavie Town Hall, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland, November 2-29; Gallery Oldham, Oldham from February 2-27, 2006. See www.annefrank.org.ukevents. Local authorities who wish to stage the exhibition should approach the charity.

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