Holocaust Museums & Memorials: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
In 1980, Congress voted unanimously to create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum is the United States’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history and serves as the national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
The museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about the Holocaust, to preserve the memory of those who suffered, and to encourage visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. Everything about the museum is powerful; even the architecture was intentionally designed to give visitors a sense of life under the Nazis. The stark brick and limestone exterior is supposed to remind people of a German factory. Inside, James Freed’s design seems flawed: Rooms do not always have right angles, the windows are different sizes, the floor is fractured, and the interior brick walls are uneven in shape and color, as were the bricks used in the crematoria. Freed intentionally wanted to convey the sense of a world gone awry.
When it first opened, some wondered how many people would want to see such a depressing museum when the fun and interesting Smithsonian Institution is down the street. In April 1998, five years after its dedication, the museum welcomed its 10 millionth visitor. The total after 10 years was 20 million. Of these visitors, 5.8 million were children, 2.4 million from abroad, and 14.2 million non-Jewish. The museum annually receives 1.7 million visitors, as of 2015. The museum has also welcomed 73 heads of state/government and more than 2,000 foreign officials from 130 countries
The museum collection has more than 8,000 artifacts and artwork; 20 million archival materials; more than 78,000 photographs; more than 7,000 oral histories and 630 hours of historical film and video footage. The Meed Survivors Registry lists more than 185,000 survivors and their families; from 49 states and 60 countries. The museum library has more than 50,000 items in more 15 languages.
The initiative for the creation of the museum began when President Jimmy Carter appointed the President's Commission on the Holocaust on November 1, 1978, to study the idea of an American national memorial to the Holocaust. Chaired by Elie Wiesel, the commission issued its Report to the President, on September 27, 1979, calling for a permanent "living memorial" in Washington, D.C. The commission felt that such a memorial would fulfill the obligation to learn from the past and to teach future generations, in its words,
A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past. The president accepted the Commission's recommendations and appointed a United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
By a unanimous vote on October 7, 1980, Congress established the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and charged it with raising funds for and building the memorial museum, conducting an annual national Days of Remembrance observance for the victims of the Holocaust, and establishing a Committee on Conscience to serve as an influential voice on issues of contemporary genocide and related crimes against humanity. Elie Wiesel and Mark Talisman were named the first chairman and vice chairman of the Council, respectively.
The Building of the Museum
An official groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the future museum took place on October 16, 1985, just south of Independence Avenue, bordering 14th and 15th Streets, Southwest. On October 8, 1986, the section of 15th Street, Southwest, in front of the site was officially renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place, in honor of the Swedish diplomat responsible for rescuing thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
In February 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Harvey M. Meyerhoff as chairman of the Council, succeeding Elie Wiesel, who had resigned the Council chairmanship in December 1986 after being given the Nobel Peace Prize.
President Reagan appointed William J. Lowenberg to serve as Meyerhoff’s vice chairman. Albert Abramson chaired the Museum Development committee that oversaw the creation of the museum. Miles Lerman chaired the International Relations Committee and the Campaign to Remember, the fundraising arm of the Museum, and Benjamin Meed chaired the Content and Days of Remembrance Committees.
To spearhead the creation of the museum, in 1989, the council appointed Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg to serve as museum director. Weinberg, whose background was in theater and museums, had pioneered the idea of a storytelling museum when he led the development of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The Museum Opening
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened to the public on April 26, 1993, with a dedication ceremony attended by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and many national and international dignitaries.
The museum opened at a time of dramatically increased attention to the Holocaust in the United States. The Museum of Tolerance had opened some two months before; Schindler's List premiered that fall; and in Bosnia ethnic cleansing was taking place in Europe for the first time since 1945. The museum drew large crowds, predominantly non-Jewish, from the day it opened. Almost 20 million visitors saw the museum
Though the Holocaust did not take place on American soil, the museum's core messages are very much intended for American audiences as it reflects on American history and American values.
The museum, of course, has special meaning to Holocaust survivors and to the American Jewish community. Its creators felt free to create this memorial in the heart of America's civic landscape. The choice of Washington and not New York was a decision to take what could have been kept as the parochial memoirs of a bereaved community to the American people as a lesson for humanity, while preserving the Judeocentricity of the event.
Remembrance is at the heart of the museum and it resonates throughout the building. The hexagonal Hall of Remembrance and the Wall of Remembrance, which memorializes the murdered children, are the two specific memorial spaces.
Another memorial component is the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which contains information on more than 190,000 survivors and their family members, including names, cities of birth, places of transit and incarceration, wartime locations, and communities of resettlement. Remembrance is also central to the museum's programming, both onsite and around the country, ranging from the oral testimony in exhibitions to talks by survivors at the Museum and around the country. Perhaps most important, the enduring commitment to remembrance is affirmed annually when the Museum leads the nation in observing the Days of Remembrance with ceremonies in the United States Capitol Rotunda and at the Museum, and in commemorations in cities and states throughout the country. Every president since 1979 has spoken at the Days of Remembrance commemoration as well as many cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices.
Directed by Jeshajahu Weinberg, designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who worked in collaboration first with Martin Smith 1989–91 and later with Raye Farr as director of the Permanent Exhibition, to implement the storyline developed by a team of scholars, curators and museum conceptual developers headed by Holocaust scholar and Museum Project Director Michael Berenbaum, the Permanent Exhibition presents a chronological account in a self-guided format that is designed for visitors 11 years of age and above. Traversing three floors, it is divided into three sections, “Nazi Assault – 1933 to 1939,” “The 'Final Solution' – 1940 to 1945,” and “Last Chapter.”
The story is told through photographs, film, documents and artifacts – such as a barracks from Birkenau, a railcar of the type used to transport Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka, a milk can hidden by Jews under the Warsaw ghetto, and a Danish boat that transported Jews to freedom. Four themes underlie the permanent exhibition: personalizing the story of the Holocaust, making it accessible to American visitors intellectually and conceptually, including all victims of Nazi tyranny without diluting from the Judeocentricity of the event, and understanding the unique perspective of those who were there. The exhibition personalizes the history, encourages visitors to understand the Holocaust as an event that people did to other people, and encourages identification with the victims and the understanding that the victims were very much like us. Another permanent installation is Remember the Children: Daniel's Story, which recounts the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. This interactive exhibition with recreated environments was designed for younger audiences, eight years and above, accompanied by their families and teachers. Although intended for younger audiences, it is also very moving for adult visitors.
The museum also offers special exhibitions in the Sidney Kimmel and Rena Rowan Exhibition Gallery and the Gonda Education Center, as well as topical displays in the Museum's Wexner Learning Center. Designed as a destination for visitors to explore and discuss Holocaust history and its meaning today, the Wexner Learning Center examines various themes and features an array of digital media, group-discussion areas, artifact displays, and videos of eyewitness testimonies. It has explored such topics as liberation, war crimes trials, and contemporary genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
The National Institute for Holocaust Education
The museum has become a worldwide leader in Holocaust education in the broadest sense. Its stature has enabled it to work nationally, internationally, and with an array of U.S. and regional governmental entities.
The Teacher Fellowship Program provides advanced professional development training to highly experienced secondary level teachers in all 50 states. The Law Enforcement and Society Program serves police and federal law enforcement officers, as well as FBI agents and judges, encouraging participants to explore the implications of Holocaust history for their own professions. The Holocaust, the Military, and the Defense of Freedom Program reaches cadets from the U.S. Naval Academy, officers in training at West Point, foreign liaison officers at the Pentagon, and soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines from military bases, aircraft carriers, and active duty locations nationwide. Finally, the museum's Leadership and Diplomacy Programs reach out to senior civil servants within the Federal Executive Institute and foreign service officers in training with the State Department so they might approach their public service with a sophisticated level of moral discourse rooted in awareness of Holocaust history and a commitment to vigorous response when faced with contemporary threats of genocide.
Rescue the Evidence
The Museum’s educational work depends on its collections and ensuring the vitality of Holocaust scholarship. Already housing the most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-related
The Photographic Reference Collection is one of the museum’s most widely used resources, containing copies of images from collections worldwide. It is an indispensable source of information for educators, filmmakers, curators, researchers, journalists, and publishers throughout the world.
In addition, the museum’s Library comprehensively collects books, dissertations, music scores, sound recordings, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and other electronic media on the historiography and documentation of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, personal accounts of Holocaust survivors and victims, and materials relating to war crimes and war crimes trials. In order to support background research on the Holocaust and related topics, the Library also collects materials on World War II, genocide studies, anti-Semitism, and Jewish genealogical and cultural history as affected by the Holocaust.
Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies
From its inception the Museum was conceived of as an educational and scholarly institution, a center for both research and teacher training. Within months of its opening the Research Institute was opened with a scholarly conference. In 1998, the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies was established to foster the continued growth and vitality of the academic study of the Holocaust. The center has taken the lead in training and supporting new scholars in the field through rigorous academic programs and is working to ensure that students at colleges and universities are taught at the highest levels of excellence by conducting programs for faculty members who specialize in this field. The center offers conferences, fellowships, awards, and stipends. It also publishes in the field of Holocaust studies, including the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, published in association with Oxford University Press.
As part of its effort to encourage a balanced and comprehensive approach to the field of Holocaust scholarship, the center launched its Jewish Source Study Initiative to encourage research on how Jews – as individuals and communities – responded during the Holocaust. This research program is an effort to balance the established research focus on the perpetrators with a commensurate level of attention to documenting the perspectives of those targeted.
Committee on Conscience
As the museum is a living memorial to the victims, its Committee on Conscience works to raise public awareness and alert the national conscience to contemporary acts or threats of genocide and related crimes against humanity. The committee has addressed areas such as Rwanda, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Sudan (both southern and Darfur regions). Working with the U.S. State Department and other federal entities, the committee recently launched an Academy for Genocide Prevention.
The museum is overseen by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which includes 55 private citizens appointed by the U.S. president, five members of the Senate and five members of the House of Representatives, and three ex-officio members from the Departments of State, Education, and Interior.
The museum is supported by a combination of government and private funds. The museum has 200,000 members.
The staff numbers more than 400, and more than 300 others, including 64 Holocaust survivors, donate more than 60,000 hours of service annually.
NO PASSES are necessary for entering the Museum building, special exhibitions, the interactive Wexner Learning Center, and other Museum resources. Even if you cannot get Permanent Exhibition passes for the day you want to come, we invite you to visit and take advantage of the Museum's many other learning opportunities. Find out what's inside.
TIMED PASSES are necessary for visiting the Permanent Exhibition — The Holocaust — and can be obtained at the Museum on the day of your visit or in advance by calling tickets.com at (800) 400–9373. Each day, the Museum distributes on a first–come first–served basis a large but limited number of timed entry passes for use that same day.
10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. every day including weekends
Closed only on Yom Kippur, and Christmas Day.
Exhibitions and Museum Shop: 10 a.m.–5:20 p.m.
Library: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Archives: 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Monday–Friday
Pass Desk: 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Museum Café: 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Exhibitions and Museum Shop: 10 a.m.–7:50 p.m.
Library: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Archives: 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Monday–Friday
Pass Desk: 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Museum Café: 8:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m.
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW
Washington, DC 20024–2126
Main telephone: (202) 488–0400
M. Berenbaum, After Tragedy and Triumph: Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (1990); idem, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (20052); T. Cole, Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History Is Bought, Packaged, and Sold (1999); E.T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum (1995); T.W. Luke, "Memorializing Mass Murder: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum," in: Museum Politics: Power Plays at the Exhibition (2002), 37–64; P. Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (1999); President's Commission on the Holocaust, Report to the President (1979); J. Weinberg and R. Elieli, The Holocaust Museum in Washington (1995).
Sources: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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