The US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In Museums on June 21, 2011 at 4:48 am

Not too many pictures in this one, folks – the United States Holocaust Museum.

It’s a new museum and a memorial museum. Neither are my favourite – as much as they absolutely should exist, memorial museums just aren’t my thing. However, this is one of the most talked about in the world, and I didn’t want to miss it. It’s held up as a brilliant museum to visit, a fitting tribute to the millions who died, and a well-done experience, but it has also upset families with its archives policies, wading into political issues and leaning too far towards the Shoah, i.e. the Jewish tragedy of the holocaust, ignoring the deaths of other religions, ethnicities and belief groups.  Took me 8 weeks to screw up the courage to visit.

I actually enjoyed the museum a lot more than I was expecting. It brought back my GCSE and A level history rather well, and I enjoyed watching some of the films about broader subjects (e.g. the economic circumstances that lead to the rise of Fascism in Weimar Germany). It was educational, and not nearly the place of awkward silence I imagined. It’s well done, educationally, and although I can’t speak for its previous incarnations, it really did look at Nazi genocide beyond the Shoah, to what I thought was an appropriate level. That said, more could have been done to highlight the horrors that continue to go on in the world. There are some pretty putrid people out there, who feed on times of desperation and economic uncertainty – they didn’t get much of a mention. Surely that should be the greatest responsibility of a memorial like this in a city like this?

Practically, there is a massive design flaw in that you are elevatored to the fourth floor and work your way down. This should work well, in theory, but there was a massive bottleneck at the top, and it took a good two floors for it to fan out. The lift ride up there was pretty uncomfortable as well. Considering you have to get timed tickets to visit (which is a royal pain in the backside) you kind of expect the crowds to be better-regulated than that, especially as there is so much standing and reading involved. There are no photographs allowed inside the permanent exhibition, as it should be, and this goes some way to preserving an atmosphere. It did feel very much like something people were just going to tick off their “Holiday in DC” list, which is bizarre to me. That’s why I don’t like these museums – I don’t like the holiday atmosphere that you always get. This one is especially weird as it is so far removed from the site of the holocaust as well. It felt very odd to see all the objects that had been removed from half way around the world – I really felt that, as good a museum as this was, it shouldn’t be here. It just felt very put on, and so not too emotional.

The thing that had the biggest emotional effect on me, however, was the memorial to Stephen Johns, just as you leave the building. He was a security guard at the museum in 2009 when a holocaust denier and anti-semite went mad and shot him.  Stephen wasn’t Jewish, and he was born long after Nazism had disappeared – he had never seen the gunman before. Hate is an illogical thing.


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