Museum of Tolerance Special Report / Emotional games
The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles may be gimmicky, filled with celebrity cameos and interactive displays, but many visitors walk away feeling truly affected.
LOS ANGELES − Upon entering the exhibition devoted to hatred and prejudice at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the visitor is asked to choose between two doors. One is marked “Prejudiced” and the other is marked “Unprejudiced.”
But when you go to the door marked “Unprejudiced,” you find it is locked and the inscription that lights up asks you to think, then go through the other door. When the Dalai Lama planned to visit the museum, staff members recall, his representatives were uncomfortable with the fact that he would have to walk through the door marked “Prejudiced.” The Dalai Lama himself, however, did not hesitate for a moment.
At a museum devoted to clarifying the individual’s personal responsibility in the most palpable way possible, officials take pride in the fact that they cause “everyone to feel equally uncomfortable.” Only thus does a person begin to ask himself the hard questions and understand, among other things, the ordinary person’s responsibility for horrors around the world.
The discomfort stems mainly from the very direct emotional manipulations of the visitor, including a set replicating the entrance to a death camp in the Holocaust exhibit, as well as the selection process at the camps, when the visitor is again asked to choose between two entrances, one for the “able-bodied” and the other for “children and others.”
A guide explains to a group of 10th-graders from a local school that if you were directed through the second door, you were sent straight to your death. In the end it turns out that both doors lead to the same spare concrete hall where recordings of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies are played, accompanied by pictures from the period.
The effect worked, and only three adolescents dared to walk through the door for children and others. A few more peered in suspiciously.
At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors receive a magnetic card with the picture of a child, whom they are able to read about, learning about where he or she was born and grew up. Only at the end of their tour do the students find out the fate of “their” child.
The visit to the darkened Holocaust exhibition lasts more than an hour. At the museum, which declares that 90 percent of its five million visitors since 1993 have been non-Jews, they start with the assumption that the visitors know nothing about the Holocaust.
The guide asks the students, many of whom are children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
“Six million,” replies a chorus of voices.
“And who else apart from Jews were killed?”
“Poles?” one girl replies.
The guide explains that among the 15 million people who were murdered in the Holocaust were also handicapped people, gays, communists, Roma and many others. “Remember,” she says, “it could happen anywhere, even in my city and yours. History has a tendency to repeat itself.”
The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is screened against a set constructed to look like ruins, and in a chilling three-dimensional model of Auschwitz, a spotlight roams over the prisoners’ barracks as in the background a pillar of thick smoke rises from a crematorium.
Following that, the students go to the computer stations, where they can find out what happened to “their” child. The exhibition ends in a recreation of Simon
Wiesenthal’s office, where a film describes his activities, and explains that the world-famous Nazi hunter was seeking justice, not revenge.
Afterwards, only five raise their hands when the guide asks whether the child survived.
“It doesn’t say whether my child survived,” says Abigail, a teen with a bright purple streak in her hair. “It says they don’t know what happened to him. We learn about the Holocaust in school but this has been very powerful. For me the hardest thing was the part where they told how the Nazis threw babies out the window.”
Among the emotional responses in the visitors book, one can also read those of students who noted, “I had fun!” “Cool, dude!” and also “They are beasts just like me.”
“The majority of the young people are overwhelmed by the experience,” says Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the museum. “But we don’t censor anything, we like people to put out what their real feelings are. In this museum were people who actually wrote: ‘We didn’t kill enough Jews.’ We left it in the book so people should see there are still people like this in the world. Some of them come with prejudiced feelings, and you cannot replace these feelings in three hours. They take it with them as part of their baggage.”
Hier says he believes interactive means are needed to attract an audience. He quickly realized the error of displaying only pictures from the Holocaust − the students walked by them quickly, barely looking at them. They weren’t strong enough to attract the young people of today.
“You can’t make the use of technology a sin. That would be ridiculous, it is 2010,” he says.
For a relatively small building, the museum tries to cover a long list of issues − from the civil rights struggle in America and women’s suffrage though the “genocide board” covering horrors throughout history. The Armenian community has protested that their genocide should also be highlighted more prominently in the exhibit, but museum director Liebe Geft states that, “the Armenian genocide appears on the genocide board, and in our films, even if this isn’t a popular perception and not what the State Department says.”
Global issues are presented in the “Millennium Machine,” as visitors sit in groups facing tables with built-in video monitors to watch films about child labor in the developing world, child pornography and so on. The visitors respond to issues posed in the films by pressing buttons.
The survey of issues is comprehensive, but one could ask whether too many topics are thrown at the visitor too quickly. Some museum exhibitions have been taken down, such as the “Whisper Gallery,” where voices hissed various racist curses. Geft says people didn’t want to take in things passively, they wanted to be challenged and involved.
Now, in the “Point of View Diner” exhibition, which focuses on local issues, a large screen shows visitors films with scenes of extortion in school, domestic violence, drunk driving and the like. Some say the massive interactivity simplifies the message, but in light of the visitors’ responses, there is no doubt the format works.
Serious researchers might complain that the Museum of Tolerance is too gimmicky, but teachers, who see how engaged their students are, are very enthusiastic about it.
The museum has also become a major institution for tolerance training for professionals, including police officers and FBI agents. It keeps close tabs on feedback to improve the programs. Geft says she always tells the employees that if they are taking the professionals’ most precious asset − time − it has to be meaningful.
The content of the museum planned for Jerusalem still remains to be determined. It will not include a Holocaust exhibit, in keeping with the agreement with Yad Vashem. Beyond the permanent exhibitions, the museum in Los Angeles also presents temporary shows, including one dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks by Iraq on the Kurds of Halabja, in 1988, and a photo exhibit about the Israeli delegation’s work in Haiti.
One exhibit, targeting Los Angeles’ huge Hispanic community, describes California’s segregation of Hispanics until the 1940s.
Hier takes me to one of the upper floors in the museum, where there is an exhibition devoted to the childhood stories of several prominent American cultural personalities. The tour begins with a pile of suitcases in various sizes and colors and a monologue by actor Billy Crystal on a screen.
Crystal spent three years working on the project, says Hier, and it provided him with inspiration for his autobiographical one-man Broadway hit “700 Sundays.” The exhibit features nine personalities, including a Muslim, a Jew, an Italian and an African-American.
“In Hollywood they know how to reconstruct things,” says Hier. Each room addresses a different issue. Because the downstairs exhibitions are so disturbing, elementary schools prefer to bring the children to these exhibits.
The museum has reconstructed in detail the general store owned by poet Maya Angelou’s grandparents, who raised her after her parents abandoned her. One of the store windows serves as a screen for a film about Angelou’s childhood made especially for the museum, notes Hier proudly.
Then visitors enter a reconstruction of Dodgers manager and legendary baseball player Joe Torre’s living room. He tells his story of a childhood in New York filled with domestic violence.
Billy Crystal’s room is also scrupulously reconstructed, including the crooked floor where they had to tie down the sofa so it wouldn’t slide. Musician Carlos Santana brought not only his story to the museum but also his first guitars.
The celebrities featured in the exhibition, which ends with Oprah Winfrey calling upon young people to make something of their lives, often bring their own guests to the museum. Visitors are also invited to participate in a project to find their family’s roots.
Hier says the Israeli Museum of Tolerance will have a similar exhibition, with the same methodology and appraoch, but that Israeli experts will be consulted about the content.
He expresses amazement that people want to know what will be inside the museum even before construction has begun, and suggests this is like asking Amos Oz what will be in his next book.
“This is absurd,” he says, adding that they will get the answer in three years, and refusing enter debates at this point.
He says many Israeli teachers and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar visited the museum in Los Angeles and found it hard to leave. Even if the Israeli museum does not have an exhibition about the Holocaust, it will have another historical section, and when they tell a historical story it will be reconstructed, the way they did with the Shoah in Los Angeles.
“In [an earlier] exhibit ... we called Yigal Amir a terrorist,” he says. “We don’t mince words.
It is not an ideological museum. It opposes fanaticism. Mutual respect and social responsibility − these are the two pillars of the Museum of Tolerance that we teach. Those who don’t like it can go somewhere else.”
So will the Palestinians be represented there?
“Will the whole museum be about the Palestinian people? Absolutely not. Without any apologies to anybody. Look in here − is this a museum totally on the African-American civil rights movement? No. Does it include things about African-Americans? Yes. Latinos? Yes. But it’s not predominantly about it.”
The Museum of Tolerance will deal with contemporary issues, he says. If the “set” takes you back in time, he suggests, in movie parlance, that’s only a prologue to the social laboratory concerned with the issues of today’s world.
“Israeli teacher, philosophers and historians should tell us: ‘These are our biggest issues, now use your know-how to get the message across,’” says Heir.
In this way, he says, it will be different from Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum, because it will be dealing with issues that appear on the front page of Haaretz, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.