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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team






Why has the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in

Washington provoked such controversy within Holocaust Studies?

By Harriet Notley


“…America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust”: this is part of the mission statement of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (hereafter USHMM) in Washington D.C., which opened in 1993.  The mission statement gives little indication of the controversy that has surrounded the USHMM since it was first suggested in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter.  This essay will focus on the main controversies within Holocaust Studies associated with the USHMM: location, building, how exhibits are displayed, the use of ID cards, emphasis on Jewish victims and its political usage.

The most logical place to start is with the location of the USHMM itself.  The site has “turned out to be one of the most controversial places in Washington”.  Why should this be the case?  Arguably, a museum of such national and international importance should be located in the capital.  However, according to Dane Stone, “Merely the placing … is problematic in some people’s eyes”.  The museum is next to the Mall and 15th Street, which was “officially renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place -- honoring the Swedish diplomat who led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust”. This renaming of the street is interesting in itself, a further example of the centralisation of Holocaust memorial in the U.S. capital.  This central location has unsettled many people, both inside and outside Holocaust Studies.  

An example outside Holocaust Studies is the architectural critic from the Washington Post, who is disconcerted by “the symbolic implications of the memorial’s placement [adjacent to the Mall]-that the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews [could be] an integral part of the American story”.  Interestingly, the concerns of those outside Holocaust Studies, are shared by some of those within it.  Norman Finkelstein agrees that the location of the USHMM is problematic.  He argues that to have a state funded Holocaust museum on the Washington Mall is “particularly incongruous in the absence of a museum commemorating crimes in the course of American history”.  Finkelstein then goes on to clarify his argument with an analogy: “Imagine the wailing accusations of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not he Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of the Native Americans”.  Furthermore, according to Finkelstein’s footnotes, attempts to build a national African-American museum in the Washington Mall Have come to nothing. 

It is unsurprising that there is controversy on the location of the USHMM when it is viewed in this way.  It makes it difficult for Holocaust scholars to justify the location and building of the USHMM, when events that have actually occurred on American soil are still awaiting formal and comparable recognition.  However, Raul Hilberg virtually criticises the location because not only does the location between other buildings restrict its floor space, it is “limited in height and its choice of materials by government restrictions”. Perhaps, Hilberg would have preferred a less central location that would have allowed more freedom in size and design. 

Given the controversy that surrounded the placing of the USHMM, it is to be expected that there would be a lack of consensus regarding the building itself.  Whilst Elie Wiesel and James Ingo Freed argued that the building should disturb, reflecting the horror and confusion of the Holocaust, this was met with resistance from the memorial committee, who desired a more neutral and less challenging museum.  Freed, the designer of the USHMM, was aware of the restrictions that were to be placed on the outside of the building, the design would need to fit in with the surrounding buildings, while at the same time, give an indication of the gravity of its contents.  Furthermore, Freed had argued for a larger building but this was turned down by the Fine Arts Commission. However, Stone argues that by attempting to make the building, as opposed to the exhibits “part of the overall experience of a Holocaust museum ends by anesthetizing the horror to an uncomfortable degree”. Indeed, this is problem that Freed recognised “There is a profound risk of aesthetcization with this particular subject, of leaching out the raw power”. 

Although the conflict over the exterior of the building was eventually resolved, what about the interior?  This too has provoked debate.  The interior of the museum is inspired by Freed’s visits to concentrations camps, ghettos and Holocaust sites, as part of his research.  The interior of the museum is purposely designed to mimic the disorientation of the concentration camp survivors, as well as emphasising the Jewish communities that were destroyed.  However, as Dan Stone states, “Holocaust museums have increasingly acquired a commutative as well as educational function.  And this commemorative function is inseparable from their entertainment function.”  Certainly, making interior spaces so unsettling that they require an “abort stair” for nervous children (and possibly adults), could be seen as being both excessive and possibly gratuitously unpleasant. 

The museum’s method of displaying exhibits has also been criticised by those in Holocaust Studies.  For example, Philip Gourevitch observed that “‘the relics of the Nazi genocide become if not glamorous then distinctly elegant’ thanks to the ‘aesthetic sensibility with which the museums artefacts and graphics have been selected and displayed’”.  Concerning this debate, it is interesting to note Raul Hilberg’s initial proposition for the display of deactivated Zyklon-B canisters.  Initially, Hilberg proposed:


a single can mounted on a pedestal in a small room, with no other objects between the walls, as the epitome of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, just as a vase of Euphronios was shown at one time all by itself in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the supreme artefacts of Greek antiquity. 

This is exactly the type of display that Gourevitich is criticising, the glamorisation of Holocaust artefacts.  Incidentally, Hilburg later describes how there is a pile of canisters (donated by the Polish authorities) “heaped in the middle of the floor to be stumbled on and notice with a downward glance”.  However, this method of display was a relatively late development in the design of the museum and caused controversy.  Originally, it was conceived that the exhibits would be displayed in sealed cases; however, this was later changed to allow a more direct form of interaction between exhibits and visitors, “It was felt that sealed cases detracted from the direct raw look that the designer strived to achieve.

As a consequence of this belief, no casework was sealed”.  This move has been criticised because it is putting the artefacts, or even evidence, of the Holocaust at risk, as Blankenbaker et al state “Since none of the casework is sealed, this problem is not only a labor issue; it also presents a significant risk to the collections on exhibit”.  Is a more tangible museum experience really worth the potential destruction of the very evidence it seeks to preserve?  Arguably not, when the donors pass on it will be even more important that their artefacts are preserved to bear witness for them. 

This desire to give visitors a more tangible experience of the Holocaust has led to one of the most universally controversial aspects of the USHMM: the use of identification cards.  Hilberg gives a succinct description of their use inside the museum:


Once inside the … museum, the visitor was invited to draw a card showing a photograph of a victim … the person on the card was a constant companion.  Indeed, this silent attendant became more familiar along the way as the card was inserted into machines which printed out more information about the victims’ fate. 

Critics have almost unanimously condemned this method of visitor interaction, which tries to create empathy with the fate of a Holocaust victim.  Stone observes that the device has been attacked as “kitsch” an as “reinforcing notions of American individualism”, although the majority of visitors like the scheme. In addition to these criticisms, Bill Niven identifies that the most of the ID cards given to visitors “refer not to those who died in the Holocaust but those who survived it”. 

This is misleading when the majority of Holocaust victims did not survive.  Furthermore, imagining oneself as the victim of a past genocide is not the same as “…imagining oneself… as a potential victim, the kind of leap necessary to prevent other ‘holocausts’”.  In effect, the effort to create a more personal identification with the Holocaust, actually further removes visitors from assisting in the prevention of other genocides.

Linked to the usage of ID cards depicting Jewish victims, are the criticisms that the USHMM marginalises non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  According to Finkelstein, Elie Wiesel and Yehuda Bauer argued for the “pre-eminence of Jewish victimhood”, yet Communists were the first political victims and the handicapped were the first genocidal victims.  Moreover, there is very little mention made of the Romany victims of the Holocaust, which Finkelstein attributes to a desire to portray a ‘Jewish’ Holocaust.

There has also been criticisms regarding the alleged omission of the “First they came for the socialists” in the version of Martin Neimoeller’s poem used within the museum.  Although, this could be a reflection of anti-communist Cold War attitudes at the time of design.  However, this raises a further question: how far should politics influence the memorialisation of the Holocaust? 

As already stated, the location of the USHMM has caused controversy.  Interestingly, Finkelstein believes that the politicisation of the Holocaust at the USHMM starts before visitors even enter the museum, with the renaming of 15th Street as Raoul Wallenberg Place.  He points out that Wallenberg’s fellow Swede and who also helped save thousands of Jews, Count Folke Beradotte, is not honoured because the former Israeli PM “ordered his assassination for being too ‘pro-Arab’”. 

Finkelstein is not he only scholar who believes that the USHMM has political motivations, he states “Even the national memorial to the Holocaust now underway in Washington, D.C., was proposed by then President Jimmy Carter to placate Jewish supporters angered by his sale of F-15 fighter plane to Saudi Arabia”.  Regardless of the validity of this statement, it raises the issue of politics influencing what should be an apolitical building.  However, it is difficult to see how any state funded memorial can be without influence from the political climate that surrounds it. 

The USHMM is undoubtedly a controversial building.  It has faced criticism over its location, exterior, interior, the way it presents exhibits, the use of ID cards, the victims it chooses to represent and its political influences.  The question is why have these issues provoked so much debate?  Firstly, the Holocaust is a highly (and rightly) emotive subject; it is an atrocity that is arguably without equal in history.  This will inevitably lead to highly charged debate about anything connected to it.  Secondly, the USHMM is a state funded memorial, it has to be as appropriate to the memories of the people it represents as is possible, as Elie Wiesel makes clear “For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories”. 

However, can any museum to such an unparalleled event ever do complete unbiased justice to its subject?  This is doubtful, all memorials are, perhaps unintentionally, tainted by the events, politics and debates that surround them, for “…it is important to remember that for museums, as for historiography, one is only ever confronted with a representation of the past”.

-Harriet Notley



Copyright: 2008 Harriet Notley & H.E.A.R.T


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