Volume 16, Number 3, Sept 1994, p.16

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Preserving History Against All Odds

by Eileen Blankenbaker, Jane Klinger, and Steven Weintraub

This paper describes briefly the evolution of the exhibition policies and methods for a unique collection of artifacts, and the dilemmas of presentation and preservation encountered when the number of visitors to a museum exceeds all expectations.

"For the dead and the living we must bear witness...."
Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, author, scholar, and Holocaust survivor, succinctly expressed the importance of preserving the historic memory of the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum chose to bear witness through the exhibition wherever possible of original artifacts. There were two principal reasons for this exhibit approach: the artifacts promote an intense emotional connection between the visitor and the historical events of the Holocaust; and, they are important physical evidence of the events of the period and negate the assertions of Holocaust deniers and revisionists. Conservators at the museum have a significant responsibility in ensuring that these artifacts will continue to bear witness for future generations.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was designed by the noted architect, Jim Freed, a principal in the firm Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners. During the initial stage of the design, the Museum's holdings consisted mostly of smaller artifacts and documents. It was assumed that the majority of the collection would be exhibited in sealed case work. As a consequence, the decision was made that the Museum would not require humidity control. When the current director, Shaike Weinberg, was appointed, he and his design team wanted to create an exhibit built on a direct interaction between the visitor and original artifacts from the time of the Holocaust. To achieve this goal, they acquired a number of large artifacts such as a barracks from Auschwitz and a rail car, and decided to minimize the amount of conventional museum case work.

Climate Control - The Big Retrofit

The change in emphasis within the exhibits, while powerful and effective, was, unfortunately, not compatible with the previous decision regarding climate control. At this late stage it was now necessary to somehow work around the original design of the structure, which was based on a European railroad station with skylights and glass-bricked walls and walkways. With so much glazing in the building, overall humidity control would be difficult to achieve, so it was decided that only those areas containing collections would have humidity control. By the time of the decision to introduce humidity control, the base building and its climate control system had already been designed and contracted, and much of the equipment had already been ordered. As a consequence, it was very difficult and expensive to retrofit the building and mechanical systems. The final system was a compromise which was designed to provide an acceptable level of humidity control without fundamentally changing the original climate control design. For this reason, many of the museum exhibit areas are supplied by climate control equipment that is not well-designed for precision humidity control. For example, one air handler and a single zone humidifier supply the variable air volume system which is dedicated to the three primary exhibit floors. With such a large environmental zone regulated by this type of equipment, it is difficult to maintain uniform temperature and humidity conditions within the individual spaces of the three exhibit floors. Furthermore, the situation was confounded by construction delays and the commitment to a specific opening date, which did not allow sufficient time to work out any problems.

Design work proceeded, nevertheless, with the expectation that the exhibition spaces would maintain temperature and relative humidity conditions within the range requested by the Conservation staff. This was a very important consideration, since the exhibit design team wanted to give the Museum a cold, industrial look to reflect the manner in which the Nazi Regime implemented its philosophy. In order to do this, Ralph Appelbaum, the designer, turned heavily to the use of black metal and glass elements, and avoided making the cases look finished or the artifacts appear "precious". As a result many displays, such as the railway car or the four thousand shoes from Majdanek, are in open but secured Museum spaces. Other materials are also not in cases, but are placed behind long expanses of barrier glass that is suspended between the floor and ceiling. To display smaller exhibit elements, the designer used a series of simple black metal and glass cases, utilizing a minimum of complex hardware. He felt that relatively open simple cases permitted a strong emotional interaction between the museum visitor and the artifacts, and made it clear that the artifacts were props within the overall story of the Holocaust Museum, sharing their place with the signage and video monitors placed throughout the galleries.

Since at the time the climate control was assumed to be adequate, there was no requirement to isolate artifacts within humidity controlled micro-climate cases. It was felt that sealed cases detracted from the direct raw look that the designer strived to achieve. As a consequence of this belief, no casework was sealed.

The Museum Opens

In the first year since the Museum's opening, in April, 1993, over one million people have entered the Permanent Exhibit. Such an unexpectedly large visitation put an enormous strain on the climate control system. The problem was compounded by some of the design features of the HVAC system, lack of familiarity with equipment, other start-up problems and insufficient time to work out such problems before opening to the public. During the initial months of operation after opening, the space humidity ranged considerably beyond acceptable limits. With time, many of the humidity control problems have been solved as a result of a concerted effort on the part of the Facilities Department, the Collections Department which includes Conservation, and a team of outside consultants. However, in the wake of these initial humidity problems, many of the paper artifacts have undergone severe dimensional movement and require extensive remounting.

Another unanticipated problem was the high level of dust in the galleries. The large Permanent Exhibition galleries on the south side of the Museum have only two air return grills per floor. As a consequence, the enormous amount of dust generated as a result of the Museum's high visitation settles within the galleries, within the unsealed casework, and on the artifacts. In spite of a large crew that cleans the galleries every day, including technicians working under the direction of Conservation that clean within the cases, it is very difficult to keep up with the maintenance requirements imposed by the current dust problem.

Since none of the casework is sealed , this problem is not only a labor issue; it also presents a significant risk to the collections on exhibit. For example, prior to opening the Museum, the four thousand shoes from Majdanek required extensive cleaning, During their one year on exhibit, the shoes have developed a more extensive layer of dust than when they were first received at the Museum, requiring yet another round of cleaning.

The Museum has instituted a number of major programs to come to terms with the dust and humidity control problems. With regard to space humidity control, the Museum has undertaken a major study of the HVAC system and is doing considerable modifications to the existing controls and hardware to upgrade system performance. Ultimately, however, the best protection for the collections was to isolate and retrofit exhibit cases with micro-climates. Such an approach comes with a considerable number of constraints. Since there is a specific look to the permanent exhibit areas and the casework, any significant changes to the appearance of the galleries would be unacceptable. Moreover the Museum is open every day of the week, and the Permanent Exhibit is designed so that the visitor must walk through the entire space; it is therefore not possible to close off exhibition areas or sections thereof during public hours. Simplicity of installation as well as cost are also important considerations.

Taking all these limitations into account, the Conservation Department has developed plans for the modifications of a large percentage of the casework that will permit satisfactory micro-climate control. For example, many of the mounted paper artifacts displayed between two pieces of glass, with spacers at top and bottom but with open sides, had the open space sealed by a layer of clear barrier plastic along the edges which is invisible at the low light level within the exhibit area. Many of the smaller cases are in the process of being retrofitted with a proper seal using a simple series of inserts and gaskets along the interior edges. Experiments are under way to install positive pressure filtered air systems within the large wall cases that cannot be sealed. Open areas, especially the exhibit of shoes from Majdanek, are being retrofitted with specially constructed dust filtration systems that are designed on an individual basis to be unobtrusively installed within the exhibit spaces.

Conservation and Rotation - A Museum Education

Education about conservation and preservation was a major task of the Department. Many members of the Museum staff came from backgrounds in Holocaust studies and education and were unfamiliar with preservation and conservation issues. There was concern that conservation standards would hinder the designers from achieving their goals. In fact, through patience, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, the Museum planners accepted and supported conservation as an integral part of the design process. To a large extent, the Deputy Director for Collections Management, Emily Dyer and the Exhibit Coordinator, Ann Farrington were strong allies in garnering respect for conservation and preservation requirements. Decisions about treatment and rotation are done in very close collaboration with the design team, and especially the Director of Collections, Jacek Nowakowski.

An example of this approach can be found in the conservation and display of concentration camp uniforms. The Exhibit planning team did not want artifacts to look restored or new. However, from a conservation perspective, the uniforms needed a considerable amount of stabilization work in order to be safely exhibited. The uniforms were vacuumed carefully and only those with gritty or oily dirt which would eventually cause the breakage of fibers or pose a threat to the condition of the uniform were wet cleaned. Other accretions which may have historic significance such as tar or paint were not removed. Holes were supported or reinforced using a common brown-gray color fabric so that losses were still visible but were neither visually disruptive nor a problem for the preservation of the objects on exhibit. Invisible padded linings were prepared for and sewn into each uniform to properly distribute the weight of the hanging textile so that it could be safely exhibited for long periods of time without damage. In a sense, materials such as the uniforms, which will be minimally rotated because of a lack of substitutions, are treated as study-storage materials, where every effort is made to provide safe exhibit conditions which will not compromise the long term preservation of the object.

The Curatorial and Conservation staff are presently developing an extensive preservation program that includes the rotation of objects on exhibit. This requires the acquisition of duplicate or similar artifacts. In some instances, current exhibit case layouts may have to be redesigned to allow for replacement with entirely new objects when rotation is not feasible. Since the exhibit tells a very linear and emotionally charged story, the concept of rotation, replacement, and use of reproductions demands close coordination between conservators and other specialists within the Museum, and involves many complex issues of content and policy.

Final Thoughts

As the U.S. Holocaust Museum evolved from concept to reality, it has served many purposes within the American and international community. Perhaps its most timely mission in this initial phase is its interaction with the survivors of the Holocaust. Quite often, donations are received from Holocaust survivors who are now in their seventies and eighties. They carry their personal treasures in shopping bags and shoe boxes retrieved from the back of their closets. These possessions are almost always presented with a story: the object takes on a significance beyond its physical state.

There will come a time when it will not be possible to hear such first hand accounts. With the passing of the Holocaust generation, a part of that history or even the artifact itself may be lost. And so, the gift enters the Museum, it is handled quite literally with white cotton gloves, housed under carefully controlled conditions, and is meticulously documented. With each new acquisition, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recommits itself to the preservation and conservation of a special piece of history so that, when the voices of the donors telling their stories can no longer be heard, the artifacts and records remain to bear witness.

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