Too many bosses at Shoah museum

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WASHINGTON — Officials at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum are promising reforms following a caustic independent report that identified key problems in governance and management.

The report, ordered by Congress and conducted by an outside panel of administrative experts, concluded that the 6-year-old institution has been stifled by "excessive involvement" of the museum's governing council in day-to-day operations.

It also said power was concentrated within a small group of council members and criticized the institution for what it called its "weak committee system, inadequate discipline, and a lack of professionalism."

The study recommended that the legislation governing the museum, which is a federal institution, should be changed to strengthen its administration, scaling back the role of the council and giving the museum's director more of the powers of a chief executive officer.

The report painted a picture of a struggling institution — an image that stands in stark contrast to all outward appearances. As one of the most visited sites in Washington, the museum has proved a success beyond the expectations of its founders, who had worried that its halls would be empty once Jews had made their initial visits.

More than 12 million people have walked through its doors since it opened in 1993, and the Shoah museum also has created a national presence in recent years through a series of traveling exhibits.

While the report acknowledged the museum's undisputed success, it further tarnished the institution's reputation following several well-publicized controversies during the last 18 months.

In January of last year, the museum came under fire for its on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to visit the Shoah museum. The subsequent ouster of the museum's director, Walter Reich — who some charged was made a scapegoat for the Arafat debacle — proved to be another public relations disaster.

Also last year, the museum was stung by a barrage of criticism over its decision to hire Holocaust scholar John Roth to head the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Roth was assailed for controversial writings about Israel and ultimately resigned the post.

And most recently, the museum has come under fire for promoting a book titled "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know," which some critics say contains anti-Israel propaganda and falsely accuses Israel of engaging in "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians.

Museum officials say they have already identified many of the problems described in the report and taken steps to address them.

Sara Bloomfield, a 13-year veteran of the institution who took over as the museum's director in March, said most of the findings in the report "are just typical growing pains of a very young, dynamic place."

The report acknowledged as much, but it criticized the institution for failing to shift from the improvisational style of leadership and management that got it off the ground in favor of a more systematic, forward-looking approach.

Most of the problems stem from council members encroaching on the roles of the museum director and senior management in areas such as the hiring and firing of staff, and administrative functions, according to the report.

"They're running the place like a Jewish organization," said Sheldon Cohen, a Washington attorney and former Internal Revenue Service commissioner who chaired the panel that studied the museum.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council chairman Miles Lerman, a driving force behind the creation of the museum, was deemed by the report to be a big problem. The report criticized his tendency to "act unilaterally" and suggested that he and others let go of the reins and allow the director to assume greater responsibilities.

The report was ordered by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs a subcommittee that approves federal money for the museum, and issued by the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to make federal, state and local governments more effective.

It contained various other observations and recommendations, including getting a broader representation of "non-Jews in general and African-Americans and Latinos in particular" on the museum's council.