Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A new Holocaust museum pushes toward the future

LA Museum of Holocaust

I plan to volunteer at the new Holocaust museum in LA and thought our supporters would appreciate this piece from Jonah Lowenfeld of the Jewish Journal. I originally heard about plans for the new museum when I attended the 2008 Annual Dinner commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht. Soon after, I visited the previous location and have to admit, I was slightly surprised once I saw the country's first Holocaust Museum, which at that time was housed in a modest office building on Wilshire. The new modern space is going to offer an element of lasting beauty and a much more fitting home for such an important cultural institution.

When the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust officially opens in its new home in Pan Pacific Park on Oct. 14, it won’t just be moving to a bigger, more prominent and more easily accessible building. It will be moving into the 21st century.

The building, located adjacent to the park’s Holocaust Memorial Monument, took seven years to usher from plan to reality and will end up costing somewhere between $18 million and $20 million. It more than doubles the exhibition space available in the museum’s former Wilshire Boulevard home, with a daring new structure of concrete and glass, much of it underground, and exhibits filled with interactive new technology, including audio and video materials scattered throughout.

But even with a new audio guide and touch-screen displays, the Holocaust museum’s leaders have been careful to keep the focus on artifacts from the permanent collection, which will fill the bulk of the public spaces.

“Our museum is supposed to be about the artifacts, the images, the documents, the evidence,” E. Randol Schoenberg, the museum’s president, said. The overwhelming majority of visitors — around 80 percent — are expected to be middle- and high-school students, who are required under California state law to study the Holocaust in school. Schoenberg said he hopes students who visit the museum will leave saying, “ ‘I saw these things with my own eyes.’ ”

The museum traces its roots back to 1961, when a group of Holocaust survivors, enrolled in an English class at Hollywood High School, decided to create a place where they could archive Holocaust history. Of those founders, only Masha Loen, 80, is still living.

“When Elie Wiesel came to visit our museum the first time,” Loen said, recalling the Nobel laureate’s visit in 1980, “he called it a little jewel.” At the time, the museum was housed on the 12th floor of the Jewish Federation building. “That was the first [Holocaust] museum in the United States,” Loen said.

The museum has moved at least four times — it was forced out of the Federation building after the 1994 Northridge earthquake — but the new building marks the first time it will have a home of its own. Designed by Los Angeles-based architect Hagy Belzberg, the 27,000-square-foot structure could scarcely be more different from the most recent location, which was on the ground floor of a nondescript office building.

However, some elements of the new installation will be familiar to patrons of the museum’s earlier home. The signature holdings — a concentration camp uniform, a partial replica of a boxcar, a model of the Sobibor death camp — still will have prominent displays. And the museum’s narrative of the Holocaust will remain chronological. Visitors will start by witnessing photos and objects from Jewish life in Europe before the war; then make their way through the unfathomably tragic history of ghettos, deportations, selections and death camps; and, finally, learn about resistance, rescue and life after the Holocaust.

New media, new spaces and new acquisitions are likely to enhance the experience of history for the 40,000 visitors the museum hopes to bring through its doors in its first year. (In its last year on Wilshire, the museum had about 10,000 visitors.)

Read the entire story here.

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