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A close friend and I recently visited Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, which describes itself as a living memorial to the Holocaust. It professes its mission as: educating diverse visitors about Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust. “As a place of memory, the Museum enables Holocaust survivors to speak through recorded testimony …” the website adds.

But as my friend pointed out, the museum’s location—overlooking the Statue of Liberty, “the Mother of Exiles,” and Ellis Island, the “island of hope and tears,” and the symbol of the American dream, the golden door to entry for millions of European immigrants—also sends another message: That the museum is not only about the Holocaust, but the special role of the United States as a beacon of hope in a fallen world and as the haven for displaced humanity.

It’s worth nothing that several of museum’s front doors are locked and a number of security guards stand watch. A telling sign of our times, as historical memory meets modern hate and as the echoes of history past encounter the bitter conflicts and controversies of the present.

As part of an effort to address antisemitism, New York City plans to send eighth graders to the museum. I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect a bit on the museum’s efficacy as an educational institution in the face of a rising tide of hate, division and global conflict.

Holocaust museums must navigate the dual roles of being both memorials and educational institutions. They are at once monuments and sanctuaries to a specific group of people whose lives were lost in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and also a visible affirmation of this country’s commitment to tolerance, diversity and inclusion.

Along with honoring the memory of the victims, these museums educate visitors about the horrors—and the historical specificity—of Nazism, as well as the dangers of bigotry and intolerance and the perils of ethnonationalism.

These museums provide a sacred space for reflection, mourning and remembrance, and to that end, feature personal stories, testimonies, photographs, documents, film clips and artifacts belonging to the victims and survivors. These objects serve as tangible connections to the past and make the historical tragedy tangible and personal. The museums also contain memorial elements, such as eternal flames, walls of names and symbolic sculptures, to create a solemn atmosphere that emphasizes reverence and respect.

At the same time, these museums have an educational mission, to trace the history of antisemitism, the rise of Nazism, the implementation of the Final Solution and its aftermath. They must discuss, to a greater or lesser extent, such sensitive topics as the role of Nazi collaborators and bystanders, the psychology of perpetrators, the responses of the international community and Holocaust denial and distortion.

Beyond the historical facts, however, these museums teach about the dangers of bigotry, racism and intolerance, and how prejudice and discrimination can escalate into violence and genocide.

One goal is to encourage visitors to reflect on moral and ethical questions related to human rights, justice and personal responsibility and pose questions about individual and collective action and inaction in the face of injustice. These museums seek to activate the conscience of visitors, inspiring them to stand against hatred, intolerance and genocide in their own lives and communities.

I regularly teach a course on museums, past, present and future. In addition to looking closely at art museums, the class devotes an equal amount of time to children’s museums, natural history museums, science museums, and history museums, historic sites, historic battlefields and historic homes.

For museums, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Prior to the pandemic, we were in the midst of an unprecedented museum boom. More people attended more museums than ever before. Today, there are more than 17,500 museums in the United States touching upon virtually every subject imaginable, from art to ice cream, from natural history to sex.

But museums also face serious challenges from without and within. There is a financial challenge, as the cost of maintaining museums climbs but revenue stagnates. There is an audience challenge: how to attract a much more diverse audience to museums better representative of the communities they serve. Then, there is a political challenge. The left sometimes sees museums as bastions of elitism and Eurocentrism, while the right sees museums as perpetrating attacks on traditional values. But perhaps the most serious challenge is the lack of clarity about what museums are supposed to do.

In addition to addressing practical issues—involving admission charges, accessibility, display and labeling practices, exhibit design, funding models, hours of operation, marketing, programming, technology integration and balancing education and entertainment—my course also examines a host of philosophical issues, involving the curation and interpretation of objects and the cultures from which they originate and community and stakeholder involvement in decision-making.

Among the key questions that the class investigates are these:

  • Should museums be required to return artifacts taken through war, colonial conquest or duress?
  • Should museums turn down offers of money that some consider tainted?
  • How should museums display their objects and educate their visitors?
  • How should museums respond to tough questions about representation, inclusion, engagement, ethics, provenance and authenticity, interpretation, and funding and commercialization?

The biggest question is: How can museums live up to their many different responsibilities—to enlighten, engage, provoke, stimulate, and elevate people above the mundane?

History museums face special challenges.

  • Ensuring that exhibits are based on rigorous historical research while avoiding the temptation to alter facts to make them more palatable or less controversial is crucial.
  • Offering multiple perspectives and acknowledging uncertainties is essential for maintaining credibility, but is easier said than done.
  • Presenting painful and highly charged subjects, including slavery colonialism, war and genocide, accurately while being sensitive to the traumatic experiences of affected communities is a significant challenge.
  • Providing nuanced interpretations that go beyond simplistic or binary narratives of good versus evil or heroes versus villains, while providing essential historical context.
  • Incorporating the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups, such as Indigenous peoples, women, and racial minorities, is essential for a comprehensive understanding of history. But—as the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles has discovered—museums have to make choices about what to include and exclude, often offending various stakeholders.
  • Being culturally sensitive and respectful in the depiction of different groups, particularly those who have been historically oppressed or misrepresented, is a key challenge.

The biggest challenge is maintaining academic integrity—imparting honest, raw, unvarnished history in the face of pressures to sanitize, whitewash and simplify. Tackling controversial subjects almost invariably provokes a backlash and protests. The pressure from government, donors or other stakeholders to present history in a certain way is intense, and navigating these pressures is a significant challenge.

In a society that is forward-looking and that tends to regard the past as irrelevant or boring or a source of nostalgia, history museums find it very difficult to engage visitors. Most, I think it’s fair to say, display objects without any clear narratives or design. Very few following the example of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—presenting history chronologically and organized around a few big themes. In the case of that museum, those themes include the contradiction between American ideals of liberty and the base reality of racial inequality, exclusion and violence and the Black role in shaping every facet of American culture.

As the target audience for many Holocaust museums is school children, there has been a tendency for many of these institutions to avoid or downplay the most controversial issues and convey highly general lessons about the value of tolerance and inclusion.

I think it is essential that these museums do more to engage with the most difficult ethical, historical, psychological and sociological issues raised by the Holocaust. Here are several:

  • How could ordinary individuals participate in such atrocities? Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil,” which suggests that normal, everyday people can commit horrific acts under the right conditions, raises fundamental issues involving human nature, obedience and all people’s capacity for evil.
  • How could various societal institutions, including the courts, industry, the professions and even religious organizations, be directly complicit in the perpetration of the Holocaust? This topic raises questions about whether contemporary societies could commit similar atrocities.
  • How should we judge the actions of individuals and nations that did not intervene to stop the Holocaust, given the historical context and their circumstances? This question about the role of bystanders raises challenging issues involving moral responsibility and the ethics of intervention.

What are the moral imperatives for individuals and governments when faced with evidence of genocide or mass atrocities today?

  • How can we ensure that the memory of the Holocaust includes all victim groups—Jews, Roma, disabled individuals, political prisoners and others—while also recognizing the specific experiences of each group?
  • What is the relationship between the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel? Discussions about the Holocaust often intersect with contemporary political debates about Israel, including its policies and actions regarding the West Bank and Gaza, raising ethical and political questions about human rights, national security and the Holocaust’s lessons.
  • What have been the long-term psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants? This raises timely issues involving trauma, memory and identity.
  • What is the moral responsibility, if any, of post-war generations to address the injustices of the Holocaust? The pursuit of justice for Holocaust survivors, including issues of restitution, compensation, and the prosecution of war criminals, remains a highly contentious issue.
  • What are appropriate ways to commemorate the Holocaust that respect the memory of the victims and educate future generations without sensationalizing or trivializing the events or undercutting the Holocaust’s historical uniqueness.

In some respects, the Holocaust was unique: in its ideological basis; in its goal of the total annihilation of the Jewish people and their culture; and in the systematic industrialization of killing carried out through a highly organized, state-sponsored system that involved a vast bureaucracy and coordination across various governmental and military institutions.

However, the Holocaust also shares similarities with other genocides, such as those in Ottoman Empire (1915–1917) Cambodia (1975–1979) and Rwanda (1994), which also involved systematic attempts to eliminate entire ethnic, national or political groups. Thus, we must ask in what ways the Holocaust offers universal lessons about global responsibility in preventing and responding to human rights abuses and genocide.

There is a growing consensus among history museum professionals that the most effective exhibits personalize history and are immersive and interactive. But how to do this successfully is a source of widespread disagreement. Touchscreen and interactive kiosks can provide detailed information, multimedia content, and interactive timelines. But most aren’t especially engaging or educational. Interaction consists largely of clicks on a screen.

Virtual and augmented reality, including holograms, where digitized representations of real-life individuals discuss their experience or respond to questions with pre-recorded responses, has become more common, especially at Holocaust museums. But the technology isn’t yet lifelike and the holograms still bear a resemblance to the older Disney (or Chuckie Cheese) animatronics.

In principle, life-sized reconstructions, sometimes replete with reenactors and soundscapes and scents, allow visitors to step into the past. But many visitors find these immersive environments and themed spaces inauthentic and sometimes downright offensive (for example, when interpreters pretend to be enslaved or indigenous peoples). I suspect that’s why few Holocaust museums offer reconstructions of the death camps’ gas chambers or the cattle cars that transported prisoners. Yet it may be that such reconstructions would have an emotional impact absent from photographs.

Especially effective are personalized experiences where visitors select topics of interest and dive deeper into specific stories. At Holocaust museums, this often involves giving visitors a specific individual’s identity card and then tracing their actual experience during the Shoah.

Notably missing at many Holocaust museums is much information about how concentration camp inmates coped. I’ve seen little about the well-documented games that children played or the forms of day-to-day and cultural resistance, which might do much more to speak to the audience than generic descriptions and statistics or timelines.

Role-playing scenarios, where visitors assume the roles of historical figures or everyday people from the past, also tend to work, but are largely absent from Holocaust museums for reasons that are easy to understand but may require rethinking.

Of course, Holocaust museums, like other history museums, offer virtual tours and online exhibits that allow people to explore the museum remotely. These virtual exhibits often include 360-degree videos, interactive maps, supplemented with interactive timelines, maps, and educational resources that complement the physical exhibits and allow visitors to continue learning after their visit. But their effectiveness varies widely.

Living history museums seek to engage audiences with live demonstrations and workshops where visitors can learn historical crafts, skills or practices, such as blacksmithing, pottery or traditional cooking, and, understandably, Holocaust museums avoid anything about saying virtually anything about the “how-to” of the death camps. Yet much of the best historical scholarship speaks to precisely such issues, especially about how ordinary women and men who were not psychopaths could engage in mass murder.

Storytelling and performances tend to work well, but are expensive for museums to offer. Still, some history museums employ actors to portray historical figures and engage with visitors, while some others host theatrical performances or reenactments that bring historical events and stories to life.

While Holocaust museums often have docents and tour guides, and, up until recently, featured conversations with Holocaust survivors, they could do more to offer performances that dramatize life before, during and after the Holocaust.

I don’t expect these museums to offer anything like the recent one-woman play “Anne Being Frank,” a wrenching reexamination and reimagining of the life and death of the Holocaust’s most iconic victim, which shifts between the young girl’s life in hiding, her arrest by the Gestapo, her horrific experiences in Bergen-Belsen, and an imaginary post-Holocaust visit to a New York publishing house, where an editor tries to bowdlerize her diary in order to convey a portrait of a sweet, innocent victim. But these institutions could certainly do more to dramatize the past and the complexities of how Jewish life played out during and after World War II.

Supplementing historical exhibits with works by contemporary artists that comment on or respond to the exhibition is an especially effective approach. Contemporary art can draw parallels between historical events and modern concerns and help visitors appreciate the ongoing impact of historical events. Also, the inclusion of contemporary art adds a dynamic visual element to exhibits, capturing the attention of visitors and drawing them into the historical narrative.

In addition, contemporary artists can bring diverse perspectives and interpretations to historical events, incorporating underrepresented voices and stories into the exhibit and challenging viewers to reconsider their assumptions and preconceptions. Contemporary artists can encourage attendees to think critically about how history is interpreted and remembered and may help them feel more connected to the people and stories presented in the exhibit. Holocaust museums might do more, I think, to commission works that reflect on the Holocaust’s meaning in the present.

In today’s climate of division, with its open expressions of prejudice and bitter conflicts over Israeli policy, Gaza and the West Bank, Holocaust museums need to serve as vital institutions that not only memorialize or educate about the past but also actively engage with contemporary issues of hate, bigotry and conflict. By providing historical context, promoting critical thinking and fostering dialogue, these museums can contribute to building a more informed, empathetic and equitable society that is committed to remembering the past and preventing future atrocities.

In addition to educating visitors with factual, evidence-based information about the horrors of the Holocaust and the dangers of dehumanization, the importance of standing up against injustice, and the need to protect human rights, these museums need to do more to promote critical thinking and dialogue. They need to encourage visitors to ask questions, engage in discussions, and reflect on the historical and contemporary implications of the Holocaust. They should also provide safe spaces for cross-cultural dialogue about difficult subjects. In terms of Israel and Palestine, these museums can provide historical context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explaining its origins and the perspectives of different parties involved.

The Holocaust museums need to serve as guardians of historical integrity, stand up for truth in the face of controversy, and function as a forum for honest reflection and dialogue. The best way to honor the past is not simply to preserve memory, but promote dialogue, bridge divides, and not flinch from the conflicts of today.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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