United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1993 opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the nation’s preeminent institution for the study of the Holocaust and for commemorating its victims, marked the culmination of a fifteen-year effort to preserve the memory of one of the most horrifying events of the modern era.

Summary of Event

In November, 1978, President Jimmy Carter created the President’s Commission on the Holocaust to suggest ways in which the United States might best commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Chaired by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, acclaimed writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, the thirty-four-member commission delivered its recommendations in 1979. The group called for the creation of a “living memorial” that incorporated a museum, a foundation to advance education on the Holocaust, and a “Committee on Consciousness” to raise public awareness of acts of genocide. The commission’s ideas were enacted by a sixty-eight-member United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which Congress established in 1980. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Museums Holocaust Nazi war crimes [kw]United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens (Apr. 22, 1993) [kw]Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens, United States (Apr. 22, 1993) [kw]Memorial Museum Opens, United States Holocaust (Apr. 22, 1993) [kw]Museum Opens, United States Holocaust Memorial (Apr. 22, 1993) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Museums Holocaust Nazi war crimes [g]North America;Apr. 22, 1993: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens[08590] [g]United States;Apr. 22, 1993: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens[08590] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 22, 1993: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens[08590] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Apr. 22, 1993: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Opens[08590] Berenbaum, Michael Wiesel, Elie Freed, James Ingo Applebaum, Ralph

Fifteen years later, on April 22, 1993, President Bill Clinton presided over the official dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Approximately ten thousand people stood in a cold rain expectantly awaiting the museum’s opening. The crowd contained Holocaust survivors, veterans of World War II, heads of state, and representatives from twenty different countries. The dedication ceremony featured speeches by President Clinton; Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel; Harvey Meyerhoff, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; and Wiesel. Wiesel delivered a powerful keynote address in which he shared the poignant story of his mother, a victim of the Holocaust. He also reminded his audience of society’s responsibility to learn from, and prevent the recurrence of, such atrocities. The opening ceremony was the highlight of a week-long series of events in Washington, D.C., that included a “Days of Remembrance” ceremony, worship services, a concert, and tributes to those who rescued Holocaust survivors and liberated the concentration camps. On April 26, 1993, the museum opened to the general public. Its first visitor was the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled political and spiritual leader.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is located one block from the National Mall and within site of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. It rests on a 1.9-acre site that was donated by the federal government. More than $168 million in private donations funded the museum’s construction. The museum has a threefold mission: to educate visitors about the history of the Holocaust, to memorialize the millions of Holocaust victims, and to promote reflection on the lessons that can be learned from the Holocaust.

The museum building was designed by James Ingo Freed, senior partner of the New York firm Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners. Freed was a Jewish refugee who escaped from Germany as a child, in 1939. He spent several months researching the Holocaust and visiting concentration camps. Profoundly affected by his experiences at these camps, he created a highly compelling building that is freighted with meaning.

Freed’s award-winning, 285,000-square-foot structure is built primarily of brick, limestone, steel, and glass. The exterior is neoclassical in design, much like other federal buildings found in Washington, D.C. Architecture;United States Holocaust Memorial Museum The museum’s interior architecture, however, is designed to transport visitors emotionally into a much different world, one that disturbs their senses. The experience begins in the Hall of Witness, an immense, four-story atrium that functions as the museum’s entrance hall. The girders that support the ceiling of skylights are twisted and cast odd shadows across the floor. The steel braces and arches in the brick walls suggest the crematoria found in the concentration camps. Catwalks span the hall, creating the sensation that visitors are being watched. A tapering staircase bears an eerie resemblance to the railroad tracks that led to the arched gate of the Birkenau concentration camp.

An exterior view of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

(Raul654/GFDL)

The museum’s second major component is the 36,000-square-foot Permanent Exhibit conceived by Ralph Applebaum, an acclaimed designer and founder of Ralph Applebaum Associates. Unlike many museums, this three-floor space is organized in a narrative fashion. It tells the story of the Holocaust by engaging visitors in an emotional fashion. It does so largely through multimedia displays and artifacts. Many of the artifacts incorporated into the exhibit were donated by Holocaust survivors and countries in which the Holocaust took place. Some objects represent the victims: passports, shoes, suitcases, eating utensils, toys, clothing, and family photographs. Other objects represent the machinery of the Holocaust: a section of a camp barracks; prisoner uniforms; canisters of Zyclon B, the gas used to kill many prisoners; and a railway car like those used to transport prisoners to the camps.

The narrative begins in the elevator that transports visitors from the Hall of Witness to the fourth floor, the top floor of the Permanent Exhibit. In the elevator, visitors watch a video about the liberation of the concentration camps. When visitors exit the elevator, they face a wall-sized photograph of American soldiers liberating a concentration camp. The horrific scene in this photograph prompts visitors to contemplate how such an unspeakable atrocity could occur. From there, the exhibit space winds down to the second floor. This area chronicles the post-World War I rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party and Adolf Hitler, Hitler, Adolf the oppression experienced by those under Nazi rule, the enactment of Hitler’s “final solution,” the liberation of the camps at the end of World War II, and the Nuremberg Trials. The narrative concludes with a film in which Holocaust survivors relate their experiences.

Upon exiting the Permanent Exhibit, visitors encounter the Hall of Remembrance. This hexagonal area is the museum’s formal memorial. Illuminated chiefly by a domed skylight, this solemn area promotes reflection. The hall features an eternal flame to honor the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Buried under the flame is dirt from Holocaust locations, including the concentration camps.

The remainder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum contains a variety of spaces, including two auditoriums, two galleries for temporary exhibits, and an expansive library and archive. In addition, the museum contains an interactive, computer-based learning facility, a research institute, an exhibit especially designed for children, and classrooms.

Significance

According to Michael Berenbaum, noted Holocaust scholar and project director of the museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum represents the “Americanization” of the Holocaust. That is, the museum adopts an American perspective, enabling American audiences to identify with its narrative.

The museum’s popularity as a site for learning suggests that it has accomplished this end. Beginning in 1993, the museum has attracted approximately two million visitors per year. Despite early concerns that the museum would interest only Jewish visitors, approximately 90 percent of its guests are non-Jewish. The museum’s highly compelling narrative has viscerally awakened visitors to the enormity of the crimes committed against humanity during the Holocaust. This educational mission has become increasingly important as the body of Holocaust deniers grows. As a national institution, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also guides the country in conducting an annual civic commemoration of the Holocaust’s victims. It holds annual “Days of Remembrance” observances and provides resources to others who wish to do so.

Finally, the museum’s significance is apparent in its attempts to marshal the Holocaust’s memory to prevent such atrocities in the future. For example, the museum campaigned to raise public consciousness about similar acts of genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. In October, 2000, President Clinton approved a law that gave the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum permanent standing. This “living memorial” will thus continue to serve as a powerful example for other museums that similarly seek to merge education with commemoration and protest. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Museums Holocaust Nazi war crimes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2d ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Exceptional exploration of the Holocaust narrative as it is imparted by the museum’s Permanent Exhibit. Contains historical photographs and testimony from Holocaust victims and witnesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kernan, Michael. “A National Memorial Bears Witness to the Tragedy of the Holocaust.” Smithsonian 28 (April, 1993): 50-65. Follows the author’s personal tour of, and thoughtful response to, the museum. Highlights some of the museum’s history and key features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linenthal, Edward T. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. An insider’s insightful chronicle of the tensions arising from the difficult decision making that influenced the museum’s focus, mission, and architectural and exhibition design.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Jeshajahu, and Rina Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1995. Details the museum’s creation, the principles that guided that process, and the activities promoted by the museum. Provides outstanding photographs of the museum’s architecture and exhibits.

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