A decade ago, on the eve of the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, organizers had no idea how the museum would be received by the general public.
Focus groups had been ambivalent. Experts recommended downsizing the building to accommodate smaller crowds.
Organizers feared that Jews would make up the bulk of the guests the first year, and that attendance would then dwindle.
“It was a heartstopping mystery,” recalls Mark Talisman, a one-time stagehand who served as the founding vice chairman of the organization behind the museum. “It reminded me in a hugely more important way of opening night.”
Now in its 10th year, it’s safe to say that worries about the museum have long since been forgotten. The building was sold out in its first year, forcing staff to scramble to create a timed entrance system for the 2.1 million visitors who would come through the doors that year.
Since then, with an average of 2 million visitors per year, the museum has become one of the top stops for tourists, schoolchildren and dignitaries visiting the nation’s capital — to the point where it has to turn groups away to avoid overcrowding.
Furthermore, surveys report that Jews make up only 28 percent of the guests.
Ceremonies planned for April and June marking the museum’s first 10 years are expected to draw dignitaries and visitors from around the world, as should a planned tribute for Holocaust survivors slated for November.
“It goes beyond the Jewish legacy. It’s a legacy for all,” the chairman of the museum council, Fred Zeidman, said. “I went in yesterday. I was as overwhelmed as the first time I went in” 1993.
A visit to the museum shows the building’s enduring appeal. On a recent Saturday morning, schoolchildren from Illinois scrambled through a Polish train car before watching a survivor speaking on a video screen.
A group of gay and lesbian students from Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s College lingered in the hushed Hall of Remembrance before continuing to a new exhibit describing Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
African American children wandered through “Daniel’s Story,” the first-floor children’s exhibit.
Travis Miller, a Texas-born cadet from the U.S. Naval Academy, walked out from the main exhibit with his grandparents, Debbie and Lawrence Boy.
“I’ve been here three times,” Miller said. “I had to bring my grandparents.”
“It’s a humbling experience,” Debbie Boy said.
For all its success, the museum’s first decade has been plagued with controversy, often related to the tension between the museum’s role as a Jewish institution and its responsibility to the U.S. government. Roughly half of the museum’s $60 million annual operating budget comes from federal coffers, Zeidman says.
The controversies were present at the beginning. Republican financier Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff, a key player in building the museum, was pushed out as chair of the museum’s council after refusing to invite then-Israeli President Chaim Herzog to the opening ceremony in 1993.
Meyerhoff had been concerned about maintaining the American character of the institution, but Herzog eventually spoke at the opening ceremony.
In 1998, as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks continued, the museum invited — and then rescinded — an invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum as a visiting dignitary.
The museum’s director, Walter Reich, refused to extend the invitation. Arafat eventually canceled the planned visit, and Reich soon was ousted.
That same year, Holocaust scholar John Roth was chosen to head the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. But Roth was forced to resign before starting work after it was discovered that he had written a 1988 piece for the Los Angeles Times that compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of Jews.
A 1999 congressional report criticized the museum for its lack of professionalism and for the paucity of non-Jews on the governing council. There were whispers that the museum was being run like a Jewish organization.
Today, a handful of non-Jews, including poet Maya Angelou, sit on the council, though the Bush administration has yet to announce its new appointments.
At the height of the Marc Rich scandal, in early 2001, reporters learned that the then-chairman of the council, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, had written to President Clinton on museum stationery, asking him to pardon the fugitive financier.
Despite months of controversy and calls from a number of council members for his resignation, Greenberg served out his term.
Zeidman, who was appointed by President Bush, has pledged to keep the museum away from politics and to maintain focus on the museum’s goals.
Among those goals are education and outreach. The museum runs educational programs for teachers around the country to come to Washington and develop material for their classes.
After Washington’s police chief, Charles Ramsey, visited the museum in 1998, police there began allowing department recruits a day of training at the museum. Similar programs are run with other local police departments, and with federal bureaus such as the FBI and NSA.
Other efforts aim at the grass roots. The museum has launched a number of traveling exhibitions, and over 350 Washington schoolchildren, most of them African American, have participated in the “Bring the Lessons Home” program, a project that includes a summer internship and educational classes.
At the close of the program, the students use their training to lead community members on a tour of the museum.
The museum also has become a model for the new generation of Washington museums. Its success helped spur the development of Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian and the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. Holocaust museum officials have met with the planners of those other efforts to lend their help, Zeidman said.
“This broke the ground for that kind of place,” Talisman said. “There had been attempts for decades to build an African American history museum.”
Officials planning the construction of a Sept. 11 memorial in New York also visited the museum recently to gather ideas.
Over the next decade, one of the main challenges for the museum will be maintaining its Jewish character.
After all, survivors originally had worried that in opening a national museum on federal land, the Holocaust might be enshrined as an event that included Jews, rather than a specifically Jewish event.
“They were still ready to take the risk,” said the national director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, a survivor who sat on the Holocaust Council while the museum was planned and launched.
But Foxman admitted that he and other survivors still worry that future generations maintaining the museum might reduce its Jewish content.
“How do we make sure 20 years from now that ‘Shoah’ is a word that resonates?” he asks.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.