Holocaust Museum’s Loaned Exhibits in Jeopardy

Philip Kennicott for The Washington Post, February 17, 2012:

In the late 1980s, when organizers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were searching for Nazi-era artifacts, they sought to tell a story that was industrial in its magnitude and horrifying in its detail. The results, a widely acclaimed permanent exhibition that broke new ground in museum design, may be in jeopardy as the museum deals with demands to return one of its most powerful and haunting objects.

Little known outside the Holocaust Museum is that many of the objects borrowed from Poland almost a quarter-century ago were on a 20-year loan, and over the past few years, those loans have expired. In some cases, the museum has returned objects, renegotiated loans or exchanged existing materials, such as shoes, suitcases and prayer shawls, for equivalent pieces.

Several members of the team that built the exhibition, one of the most visited in Washington, are concerned that the drab wooden barracks from Auschwitz that gives visitors a chilling sense of the daily brutality of life under the Nazis, may have to be returned to Poland, leaving a prominent hole in what they call the exhibition’s basic narrative.

Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, said that while some objects have already been returned or exchanged, visitors were unlikely to notice any significant change to the exhibition. But she acknowledged that negotiations are underway to keep the barracks on the museum’s third floor.

“It is our priority to keep the barracks in the exhibition,” Bloomfield said. “We are in negotiations with our Polish partners about how to do that.”

Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who was project director for the museum when the collection was being formed, is disappointed by changes to the exhibition.

“It was our understanding that we were going to have it permanently,” he said.

Martin Smith, a documentary filmmaker who helped craft the exhibition’s focus on narrative (at the time, an important innovation in U.S. museum design), is more blunt.

If the museum loses important pieces such as the barracks, “the whole veracity of the place will go,” he said. “The physicality of those objects speaks volumes.”

But Bloomfield and a representative of the Polish Embassy in Washington are in accord about the legal details.

“We have reviewed the loan agreements,” Bloomfield said. “We’ve always called these long-term loans.” The original understanding dictates that “at the conclusion of the agreement, the barracks will be returned, and the museum can request another loan after that.”

Witold Dzielski, first secretary of the Polish Embassy, said he sympathizes with the museum’s desire to keep the barracks.

“All the other issues are being solved pretty easily,” he said of the smaller objects that have been returned or exchanged. “But in the case of the barracks, it is a particularly difficult situation. There was an agreement, and according to Polish law, there is no way that the barracks cannot be returned.”

The expiration of the loan agreements puts the museum and Polish organizations that contributed to it in a difficult position. Few subjects are more emotionally fraught than the Holocaust; and the relationship between Jewish survivors and Poland, where most of the German death camps were located, has been particularly difficult. The enormity of Nazi violations of international law and human rights have led to decades of ongoing conflict over the ownership of looted art and property, and the relative status of different groups that suffered in the war. But the loan agreement case also raises emotional concerns about the museum’s design, so celebrated since its opening in 1993 that changes to it are seen as potentially sacrilegious.

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