I just finished reading Katie O’Brien’s useful article in a recent FullBleed entitled,“Talking ’bout a Resolution.”. (Better late than never, I suppose!) One New Year’s tip she suggested was to “pick 12 museums and dedicate each month to going to a different one.” I think for budget-minded DC creative types, this is an ideal resolution concept that few other metropolitan areas could better fulfill.
In this regard, I thought it would be a good time to re-submit an article I completed several years back when FullBleed was actually printed. I was asked to write an article about a museum of my choice for an upcoming museum-themed issue. That issue was never published …and a lot of time has gone by. But the murder of Officer Tyrone Johns on June 10, 2009, in the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum underscores the relevance of this museum and the need to raise awareness of hate crimes that, sadly, continue to exist across the globe today — and in DC, too.
The current exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, reveals how the Nazi Party used modern techniques, new technologies, and carefully crafted messages to sway millions with its vision for a new Germany. Since we as ADCMW members are involved in creating communications, I think a visit to this excellent museum would be a valuable resolution to keep. 30-minute guided tours of the Propaganda exhibition are offered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Inquire at the museum’s information desk for tour times. The museum is free, but timed tickets must be obtained at entrance.
What follows is a brief overview of the design/logistical evolution of the museum.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leave everyone forever changed—a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope…if this museum can mobilize morality then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.
— William J. Clinton, April 22, 1993
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was created by an act of Congress in 1980 and is largely funded by the United States as America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history. It serves as our country’s memorial to the millions who suffered during this grim period. Its mission is threefold: to educate, preserve memory, and provoke visitors to think about moral and spiritual questions raised by the Holocaust.
The architecture of the museum is provoking on a subconscious level – it is multifaceted and multilayered. The architect, James Ingo Freed,of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, is Jewish, was born in Esser, Germany, and is a Holocaust survivor. His parents sent he and his sister to the United States to escape, and they were unable to reunite for several years.
To prepare for this commission and inform his design, Freed traveled to the sites of camps and ghettos. The more he learned, the more difficult his job became. Materials and structures throughout the building communicate “viscerally” to the visitor. In Freed’s words, “The museum becomes a resonator of memory.” He did not want the museum to only dwell on the morose and depressing. He ultimately wanted it to be a representation of hope and resolution.
The main limestone and brick entrance melds the building into its federal environment. The arched portico is a light-filled facade that opens to the sky. “Visitors must pass through the limestone partition to enter the concrete world” was Freed’s written intent. This antiseptic “facade” represents the Nazis efforts to hide the crimes they were committing. The real entrance is past the granite portals.
Once inside, the main entrance evokes hardened industrialism — A lop-sided train station. It was a bit more than ironic that I was drawn to visit the museum by a gripping story that reverberated as I walked into the giant space. Recently, my friend’s mother passed away. I asked where I could make a contribution to honor her memory. Unbeknown to me, her mother had been a Holocaust survivor. From a small town in Poland she was herded onto a train that would have taken her to a concentration camp. Though the train window was tiny, her figure was so emaciated that she was able to slip through it to freedom. Her Christian friend, who had recently married and changed her name, gave her the old identification card and she passed as a Christian for the duration of the war.
As I entered further into The “Hall of Witness” I encountered the steel plates, bolted metal, rivets, and off-center existence of Europe from 60 years ago. The metal is dark, but the skylight illuminating. This architectural “language” is an ironic criticism of early modernism’s lofty ideals of reason and order that were perverted to build the factories of death.1 Glass and steel walkways overhead symbolize the constant scrutiny that prisoners endured.
I walked up the stark and steep stone staircase and entered the “Hall of Remembrance,” a six-sided marble chamber where an eternal flame is kept burning. There are slit-like windows along the hinges of the walls. One can spy through to see the plaza along Raoul Wallenberg Place below where Loss and Regeneration by Joel Shapiro is installed, one of four original sculptures commissioned for the museum. On the left side of the room is a view of the Potomac and through another, the Washington Monument. I lit a small candle to honor Janet Landau, my friend’s mom who was one of the lucky few who had found freedom through a similar narrow aperture.
The rooftop from this avenue evokes prison patrol towers. The building design is a multi-dimensional collection of abstract forms. On this same floor is the visitor’s center where there is an informative orientation film about the museum, The Wexner Learning Center, and The Meed Survivor’s Registry that encourages all who lived under the Nazi regime to record their history. For more in-depth research, visitors may use the museum’s library, archives, and photo archives on the fifth floor.
The exhibits contained at this museum encourage the visitor to reflect upon one’s own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. Visitors are asked to contribute their thoughts on ledgers provided throughout the museum—the value of each entry is evident. The curators are cognizant that writing our thoughts down is a valuable way to deal with harsh realities, and some of the exhibits are indeed harsh enough so that they are given age appropriate ratings. The ledgers throughout the museum brought to my mind Anne Frank’s fragile thoughts. The innocent journal of a young girl that has informed so many about the day-to-day experience of being caught up in a horrific experience of being Jewish in Europe during WWII.
Among the permanent collections is “Remember the Children: Daniels’ Story,” a boy’s remembrance of his life and survival through the Holocaust. Visitors walk through the imaginary rooms of his house and absorb the artifacts and thoughts of this youngster. On the lower level there is a colorful installation of tiles painted by school children for The Children’s Wall of Remembrance. The wall is a tribute to the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis.
The current exhibit “State of Deception – The Power of Nazi Propoganda’ is one that may be of particular interest to art directors. But other special exhibitions are presented here, as well, such as the Committee on Conscience display, which is located outside the Meyerhoff Theatre. Again, exhibits are clearly marked with recommended viewing ages, as some of these images are brutally disturbing.
Now, more than 17 years since the museum’s official dedication by President Clinton, many of the issues focused on in this museum still resonate. Recently, for example, the museum presented a premiere screening of Hotel Rwanda, in its ongoing quest to inform the world on issues relating to genocide.
Raise your own awareness at:
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW Washington, D.C.
Although it’s free admission, timed-entry passes are required to view the Permanent Exhibit—The Holocaust: a chronological history of the Holocaust in a self-guided tour that spans three floors. The elevator ride to the top is lit with a bulb in a cage. The modern well-lit world of D.C. is left behind. Visitors are issued identity cards of real individuals who endured the trip to the death camps. Not till the end of your journey will you find out if you were one of the lucky few who survived.
This is an important museum, and there is much to understand inside this fine example of modern architecture, exhibit display and abstract sculpture.
The museum is open daily from 10 am – 5:30 pm. From April 5 – June 16, the museum will be open until 8 pm on Tuesdays & Thursdays. It’s closed on Yom Kippur and Christmas Day. For more information visit www.ushmm.org: This website is rich in graphic content and contains in-depth information on every facet of the museum’s mission and offerings.
References: Cornerstones of Freedom The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Philip Brooks, Children’s Press a division of Grolier Publishing, NY, London, Hong Kong, Sydney, Danbury Connecticut, 1996.