Holocaust Museum looking to build on its success

WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors in 1993, officials held out modest hopes, but expressed quiet trepidation, about how the museum would be received by the public.

Five years and 10 million visitors later — nearly four times the number initially projected — officials are still amazed by the museum's unanticipated popularity.

"There had always been questions about how a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Holocaust would speak to large numbers of people on an ongoing basis, and I think what we have now is evidence beyond our wildest expectations," said Ruth Mandel, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Some 80 percent of the visitors are not Jewish, about 14 percent are foreigners and 18 percent have come to the museum more than once.

And in an effort to expand its outreach the museum has developed traveling exhibitions, four of which are now touring the United States.

The founding chairman of the memorial council, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, had thought that the museum would serve as a useful, but small, memorial and educational resource. "It surpassed my ambitions," he said recently.

Despite its success, the museum's founders and others dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust believe it is too soon to measure the museum's efficacy. The true test, they say, will come in 50 years' time.

"Unless we start thinking today about where this museum will be 50 years from now, we are missing the point," said Miles Lerman, chairman of the council.

Given the results of a survey commissioned by the museum to coincide with its fifth anniversary, a lot of educational work remains to be done.

The survey showed that one out of five Americans don't know or aren't sure Jews were killed in the Holocaust, or that it occurred during World War II. More than 70 percent falsely believed that the United States granted asylum to all European Jews who wanted it.

But four out of five Americans surveyed picked the Holocaust as one of history's most important lessons, and two-thirds said they would like to learn more about the Holocaust.

Deborah Dwork, director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said she found it "appalling" that such a high number of Americans were uneducated about the Holocaust. But she said it was positive that a majority wanted to learn more about the event, calling it "a clarion call for education."

Significant majorities of Americans have heard of the museum (77 percent) and would be interested in visiting if they were in Washington (61 percent), according to the survey of 1,641 adults, which has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Dwork said the most important role the museum can play is a "stimulus and a catalyst for further education."

The museum is already looking ahead.

To make sure that scholars who are teaching lessons of the Holocaust in 2050 are as knowledgeable as today's scholars, Lerman said the museum would facilitate the training of a new cadre of Holocaust scholars through its newly established Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. It also plans to develop an international consortium of universities with a Holocaust chair at each place, and to set up a lending library for high school teachers.

While the museum's central commitment remains honoring the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, some activists have underscored the importance of actively applying the lessons of the Holocaust to world affairs.

Toward that end, in 1995, at a time when interethnic conflicts were raging in Bosnia and Rwanda, the museum created a Committee on Conscience to provide a collective voice to address global genocide.

The idea was first proposed in 1979 by the President's commission on the Holocaust as part of an overall vision for the institution.

"The idea that we would use the memory and the meaning of the Holocaust as a tool, as a weapon in the fight against any genocide is, in my judgment, the greatest honor we can pay the victims of the Holocaust," said Hyman Bookbinder, a founding member of the museum's council who now sits on the Committee on Conscience.

"We haven't really developed the full arsenal of things we might do," he added.

Some activists would rather the museum not venture into such territory, fearing that the politicization of such a venerable institution would betray the memory of the victims.

Lerman rejects that view.

"Are we going more and more in a political direction? No. But we are going more and more in an active moral direction," Lerman said.

Those tensions collided in January when the museum became embroiled in an embarrassing public controversy surrounding an on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. Asked by the State Department to receive Arafat for a tour, Lerman extended an invitation, retracted it, then extended it again before Arafat ultimately declined to visit.

Walter Reich, the museum director who staunchly opposed the idea of a visit and advised against it, was forced to resign as a result of the episode.

Museum officials say they have put the incident behind them, although officials have not yet started a search to permanently fill the position. Sara Bloomfield, who has been associated with planning and operations since 1986, is serving as the museum's acting director.

"We needed to just have a period of getting back to work," Mandel said. "I think it's important for things to settle down and move normally before we take this up."