What is a good museum?
A good museum serves its entire community. A good museum speaks to society. A good museum challenges you, sparking a social and cultural conversation. That means that a good museum will, from time to time, face controversy.
Are Holocaust museums an exception? Must they avoid tough conversations about contemporary society? Is their sole purpose to memorialize the past?
Of course not.
On November 2, the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, near Orlando, opened a new exhibit. “Uprooting Prejudice: Faces of Change” features 45 stark black-and-white photographs by John Noltner that serve as a commentary on racism in America. Each image is a carefully composed portrait, paired with a quote responding to the outpouring of emotion after George Floyd’s death. The faces are white, Hispanic, Asian and mostly Black. In one haunting image, a crying Black teenager asks, “Am I next?” In another, a white man with a beard and a thoughtful expression says, “This is an opportunity for us to show each other how much we care about each other.”
Sadly, not everyone embraced that opportunity. This week, some Jewish organizations and Holocaust museums criticized the exhibit, and those criticisms were in turn weaponized and spread by right-wing media. The main question surrounding their critique? Whether a museum established to remember Jewish victims of the Holocaust should explore issues of contemporary social justice.
The Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff described the decision to display Nolter’s photographs as “totally inappropriate.” Some in the Orlando Jewish community expressed “disgust and embarrassment” and dismissed the exhibit as “nonsense.” A few hours away, in St. Petersburg, the Florida Holocaust Museum’s Executive Director Elizabeth Gelman and Chairman of the Board Michael Igel said they “believe no comparisons should be made between other historical or current events and the Holocaust.”
I believe that, too. The Holocaust was a singular evil, and likening other events to it — no matter how horrible — diminishes its truth. But that is not what the Orlando museum has done. There is no suggestion in it that the museum, the photographer or his subjects are comparing anything to the Holocaust. “Uprooting Prejudice” is a temporary art installation about how to come together as human beings in the face of America’s intractable, structural racism. It asks questions and addresses current society. It is doing what temporary exhibits are meant to do: exposing people to new and challenging perspectives.
‘Uprooting Prejudice’ is doing what temporary exhibits are meant to do: exposing people to new and challenging perspectives.
I have occupied the entangled world of Holocaust and genocide memorialization for several decades. As founder of both the first Holocaust center in the United Kingdom and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda, I learned quickly that comparison is neither valuable nor helpful. Compassion is. I was involved in the establishment of the Cape Town Holocaust Museum in 1999, in the aftermath of the apartheid era. In South Africa, there was no point in pretending that racism did not exist for every single one of the visitors that came through our doors. In fact, we recognized there that the Holocaust is all about racism taken to its extreme. A Holocaust museum is the very place to talk about racism.
The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Orlando was founded by Holocaust survivor Tess Wise. When I was designing the U.K. Holocaust Center in 1993, I may have become the only person in history who flew to Orlando to see the Center and not Disney World. Wise distilled her vision into the museum’s mission statement: to “build a just and caring community free of anti-Semitism and all forms of prejudice and bigotry.” She knew that a memorial museum must be for the public good, and, in that spirit, the museum recently announced it was launching a $60 million expansion in downtown Orlando, where it will be renamed the Holocaust Museum of Hope and Humanity.
Whenever I encounter arguments about comparisons to the Holocaust, I wind back the clock to 1933. I imagine the Jews of Europe, marginalized, excluded and unheard. I wonder how history might be different had someone outside the Jewish community said the right thing at the moment or identified personally with their unfolding plight. What would have happened if some Germans had seen a part of themselves in their Jewish neighbors?
Those complaining about the Orlando exhibit are missing the larger truth of Holocaust remembrance. George Floyd’s death is not a threat to our society; it is a reflection on our society. I have seen the exhibit. There is anger in it, as there should be. There are demands for change in it, as we need change. But mostly, Nolter’s photographs celebrate compassion, a sense of the humanity we can share. In times past, that sense of compassion could have saved Jewish lives. And that lesson is what Holocaust museums are for.
In one of the photographs, a Black man peers over the top of his star-spangled face mask and says, “At a time like this, we need more unity, not more division.” For an institution on its way to becoming a museum of hope and humanity, this exhibit seems like a very good place to start.
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.