Irony: Alive and Well at the Holocaust Museum

The Rules Will Be Followed

United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum

I have been working these past few years as a Washington, DC, city guide.  It’s a bit like working for the fire department.  Every day is different, nothing ever goes quite as planned, and you meet a lot of people along the way.

In addition to “interpreting” the city and its history, part of the job is acting as escort to help out-of-town folks negotiate unfamiliar territory as they visit the sites and the museums.  Whether it’s the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, Mount Vernon or any of the other dozens of locations they all have their way of dealing with visitors.

Some require a security screening that may be largely cursory all the way up to the “no non-sense” operation at the Capitol.  Most balance the need for order and security with the idea that visitors should have the best experience possible as part of the objective of learning and civic engagement.

The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USMHM), federally supported with the mission of  teaching the history of the Holocaust and keeping us ever vigilant to the occurrence of genocide, takes an unusual approach to the visitor experience.  Students of history or even those who have seen a film such Sophie’s Choice, based on the best-selling novel by William Styron, will be familiar with the officious, unforgiving, bullying nature of death camp guards towards those arriving there.

I very recently took a group of young folks to the USMHM during a cold snap for a pre-arranged appointment.  We were right on time and had 90 minutes to spend there.  It was a blustery day with temperatures in the 30′s.  I had the kids stand in the sun as I went to make contact with the visitor representative.

He was dressed in a parka fit for the South Pole complete with the hood up.  I identified our group and our number(56)  and he studied his clip board only to announce that I could not enter until a second group of some 56 more arrived on another bus.  We knew not where the other bus was nor exactly when it might arrive.

As the kids shivered in the cold I pointed out that we had to go through security anyway so why not allow us to do so to speed up the process, save time and get them warm.  ”No” was the answer.

I tried speaking with other personnel.  When my unyielding “guard” was finally told to allow us to enter by a supervisor, he turned to me and said, “If your group goes in you will be forfeiting the reservation for the other 56.”   For those who have in fact seen Sophie’s Choice, I was in a similar situation.  In allowing my group to enter, I would prevent the others from doing so.  Of course, I declined and we cooled our heels (literally) until the others arrived.

All 112 of us now made our way through security before being allowed to queue up for the elevator that would take us up to the exhibition level.  We originally arrived with 90 minutes to experience the museum and 34 minutes had now ticked by as we waited to start.  I pointed out to a colleague that earlier that day we had toured the Washington National Cathedral in less time than it was taking us to enter the USMHM.

It’s hard to imagine that the USMHM can believe that it is fulfilling its mission by treating visitors in such a way.

But, rest assured–the rules were followed.

And, at long last, the elevator finally arrived.

 

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