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Holocaust Museum


HOLOCAUST MUSEUM. The dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington,

D.C., on 22 April 1993 brought to fruition a process begun on 1 May 1978, when President Jimmy Carter announced the formation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by the Holocaust survivor and eventual Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Motivations for the project were complex: it was a political response to the administration's tension with American Jews, and it was a cultural response to the increasing power of Holocaust memory among both American Jews and the wider culture.

The commission envisioned a living memorial that would include memorial, museum, and educational space, and it proposed a civic ritual, the "Days of Remembrance" ceremonies, which would become an annual part of the nation's ritual calendar. Early struggles hinted at the enduringly volatile nature of the project. The commission and the Carter administration argued bitterly about the proper balance between Jewish and non-Jewish Holocaust victims in an attempt to construct an official definition of the Holocaust and in the selection of members for a body designed to implement its recommendations: the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which first met on 28 May 1980, also chaired by Elie Wiesel.

Those tasked with the creation of the museum had to address issues about the location and representation of the Holocaust in a national American museum. Should this be an "official" American memory? Why? If so, where should the memory be located? In New York, home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, or in the nation's capital, on space adjacent to the national Mall, suggesting the Holocaust memory should be enshrined as a central American memory? Should the building be a neutral container, or should the architecture itself be expressive of the event?

After visiting Holocaust sites in Europe, the New York architect James Ingo Freed created an evocative building that removed visitors from American space, through what some called an "atrium from hell," windows that never allow a full view of the Mall, and elevators that transport visitors into the cold and dark exhibition space.

The creators of the museum also struggled with issues of Holocaust representation. What is the proper relationship between Jews and "other" victim groups in a museum exhibition? Do photographs taken by Nazis victimize the dead yet again? Is women's hair—shorn from victims before gassing—an appropriate artifact with which to tell the story?

Supported in part by federal funds, the museum has become an influential model of an activist memorial environment, seeking to awaken civic sensibilities through the telling of a cautionary tale. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was consciously modeled after the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Linenthal, Edward T. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America's Holocaust Museum. New York: Viking, 1995. Re-print, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Weinberg, Jeshajahu, and Rina Elieli, The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995.

Young, James E. At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

———. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Edward T.Linenthal

See alsoGenocide ; Jews ; Museums .

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