Menu JTA Search

BEHIND THE HEADLINES Holocaust museum works on reforms after report criticizes its management

WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 (JTA) — 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 six-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, scale back the role of the council and give the director of the museum more powers of a chief executive officer. The report paints 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 come to see it once. More than 12 million people have walked through its doors since it opened in 1993, and the museum has also created a national presence in recent years through a series of traveling exhibits. While the report acknowledges the museum”s undisputed success, it further tarnishes 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 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,” that 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. Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a driving force behind the creation of the museum, said he appointed a commission earlier this year to prepare its own recommendations for changes in management and governance. Its report is due later this year or early next year, and Lerman said the museum will combine the two reports to develop a course of action. 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 acknowledges 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 the museum”s organizational structure, according to the report. “They”re overwhelming their administrative side,” said Sheldon Cohen, a Washington attorney and former Internal Revenue Service commissioner who chaired the panel that studied the museum. “They”re running the place like a Jewish organization.” He said that while the style of governance exercised by Lerman and other council members may have worked in the past, “You”re running a big institution and you”re going to make mistakes if you do things quick and dirty.” Complicating the decision-making process, Cohen added, is the fact that “you”ve got a lot of headstrong, rich people who want things done their way.” The report specifically criticized what it called Lerman”s tendency to “act unilaterally” and suggested that he and others let go of the reins and allow the director to assume greater responsibilities. Museum officials and council members said a small, dedicated group that comprises the executive council has worked hard over the years to carry out their vision and emphasize that they have only done what they thought was right for the institution. “At the time when we were building the museum, if we were to have applied the formula we”re talking about, the museum never would have been built,” Lerman said. “It was a period when there was a need for decisiveness, short cuts and making decisions on the spot.” But he acknowledged a need to adapt to the changing needs of the institution, saying, “It is time that we take a deep breath, look back, evaluate the situation and begin implementing a modus of operation that will bring this institution in a healthy stage into the 21st century.” Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime Jewish activist in Washington and a founding member of museum”s council, said it should be recognized that Lerman has made a “colossal contribution” to the institution, “and if he got over-involved as this report indicates, it”s because the staff wasn”t there and there was not the capability for totally efficient management.” The report does not draw a distinction between problems that existed during the tenure of Reich, which ended in March of 1998, and those that have persisted or emerged since Bloomfield succeeded him. Lerman and Reich were known to have had a difficult working relationship, but Lerman has expressed full confidence in Bloomfield. “We have a director who is competent, hard-working, understands the museum and has managerial skills,” he said. “A director of this nature you need to leave alone and let run the museum.” 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, among them: * New legislation is needed to formally establish the museum”s director as the individual with primary responsibility for museum operations, while establishing the council as the board of directors. The director of the museum would be made the chief executive officer. * Rather than concern themselves with day-to-day operations, the panel said the council should consider issues such as the extent to which the museum should address non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust and how to address instances of contemporary genocide. * The director and senior management, with input from staff, should develop a strategic plan that sets out broad priorities, goals and strategies. * “There is an inadequate representation of non-Jews in general and of African-Americans and Latinos in particular” on the museum”s council. * Each council member should be limited to one five-year term, rather than an unlimited number of terms. Council members agreed with many of the recommendations set out in the report, but most took issue with the notion of a need for greater minority representation on the council, shorter terms and broadening the institution”s focus beyond Holocaust memory. Indeed, some Jewish leaders were highly critical of the overall report. “I think it”s skewed,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a member of the museum”s council. “This museum is unique as a federal agency, and what they did is apply the standard procedures and practices of other federal agencies.” He added: “Every institution needs fixing. But I see this as coming down with a heavy load of criticism, as if this institution was really suffering.” One outspoken critic of the museum”s leadership, meanwhile, said the report provides further evidence of why Lerman should step down. Lerman was reappointed by President Clinton to a second five-year term last year. “What this report clearly indicates is that the managerial problems of the museum really stem from Lerman, and that he encroaches on the director,” said New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, adding that he thinks Lerman has “courted the politicization of the museum.” Weiss, who is the brother-in-law of former director Reich, dismissed the notion that the museum”s problems reflect growing pains. “We”re talking about the chair conducting himself secretly not only without the knowledge of the professional staff, but without the knowledge of the council,” he added. Lerman, for his part, said he “seldom tries to defend myself” and, as a counterargument, simply points to the museum he has poured his life into. “I am a great believer that facts speak for themselves, and I am very proud of what we have accomplished,”” he said.