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MAR 31, 2011

Experts: Don't say 'never again' to Holocaust museums (Houston Chronicle)

Experts: Don't say 'never again' to Holocaust museums

Must Holocaust museums evolve as they approach an age without any living survivors? As the Nazis recede further into the past, is there a danger of museums devoted to Holocaust memory becoming static?

A recent New York Times article by Edward Rothstein raised these provocative questions and has some experts worried about the view that Holocaust museums need to become more than one-trick ponies.

"When you say that a Holocaust museum must not be static you're implying, very strongly, that being static is bad," says Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Stagnancy could mean bankruptcy for clothing designers, but what's true of fashion isn't true about the "catastrophic vulnerabilities of human nature," says Reich, now a professor at George Washington University.

"That history and those vulnerabilities are fundamentally static," he says. "It should be portrayed in a way that depicts exactly what happened. It should not become a vessel for current trends, concerns or fashions and should not stop being a museum about a discrete historical event."

Ira Perry, director of marketing and public relations at the Holocaust Museum Houston, agreed.

"Holocaust museums do not necessarily need to evolve into something else," he said. "They serve a distinct role in honoring the victims' histories and the survivors' legacies."

According to Perry, the museum, whose permanent exhibit was created by genocide scholar John Roth, Edward J. Sexton professor emeritus of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., devotes an "extensive amount of effort" to histories of survivors who moved to the Houston area and are a "critical and active" part of the museum.

Though the museum doesn't "assert any equivalence among any of the genocides," it does feature exhibits on Darfur and Rwanda.

"Beyond the fact that all had hatred as a root cause, they are all unique in why and how they occurred, the impact on their victims and their place in history," Perry says. "We believe it is critical to our own mission of teaching the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy to speak to today's patrons and students in relevant and meaningful ways of the variety of forms of hatred and prejudice that can and have led to violence and genocide around the world."

That message, Perry says, is all about the future, and is part of the reason the museum's education department launched a new program for students on social cruelty. "Hatred, prejudice and apathy led to the tragedy of the Holocaust, and as we have seen, they have led to other genocides since," he says. "As we teach, with knowledge comes responsibility."

The museum also sponsored the recent world premiere of Kaddish, which sets the words of survivors to music, with the Houston Symphony, and its multimedia exhibit Through Their Eyes, which records testimony of survivors — anticipating a time when they can no longer share their stories in person.

"We continue to seek new ways to speak to new audiences each and every day," Perry says.

Mark Rothman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which was the focus of the New York Times article, says he is thrilled "the Gray Lady has taken her place at the large table of media that looked at the museum from multiple perspectives."

Rothman is even considering creating a new lecture series at the museum based on the article, which would focus on everything from the "hysterical" Soup Nazi character from Seinfeld to inappropriate references to the Holocaust in criticism of the new health care legislation.

But Rothman says he does not understand the line of argument that Holocaust museums need to strive to remain relevant. "I don't get what motivates people to think Holocaust museums are anachronistic," he says.

Visiting a small museum near where George Washington crossed the Delaware River once, Rothman found the "very traditional exhibit" helped him understand not only the historical event but America today. "Was that anachronistic? I don't think so," he says.

Richard Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Ill., which was also mentioned in the New York Times article, says the "inherent and enduring power to the Holocaust narrative" should remain paramount always.

But the museum, which opened its current building in 2009, is evolving as all cultural institutions must, Hirschhaut says. In particular, it is focusing on preventing bullying of young people, and it strives to use social media to communicate with its audience.

"It is important to create these museums now while the survivors are with us," he says, "but they remain equally, if not more important, after the survivors are no longer with us, when the survivors can no longer tell their stories themselves."

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