To the uneducated observer, the scene at the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center was one of complete chaos. A line of papers taped to the unfinished walls stretched across the room. Several people were animatedly debating and gesturing, and every now and then a paper would be added, replaced or repositioned. Colorful sticky notes punctuated the paper procession, as if some art director wanted to brighten the display. But this was no art project. Members of our educational and research teams were designing the layout and wording for the core exhibition, and things were getting exciting.
You may not be aware of how much effort and planning go into creating a museum exhibit from start to finish. In a world where modern technology and media have become so intertwined, a simple plaque describing an artifact is simply passй. Audio and video design experts work to blend the effects of light, sound and image to give visitors an unforgettable experience.
But the heart of the exhibit is still the information, and that gets done the oldfashioned way. Researchers examine mountains of documents and conduct hundreds of hours of interviews. Working with educators, they craft exact wording to create text that is informative yet engaging, concise yet complete.
Hence the papers adorning the walls. This was the narrative for the exhibit, and the sticky notes indicated the appropriate use of artifacts and other imagery to enhance the message.
As you can imagine, debates erupt frequently during this planning. Although only a handful of people are involved, there are somehow a dozen different opinions. Hours are sometimes spent on just a few words, and final decisions must often be pushed off until a later stage. But I know that this is time well-spent, because before something is shared with the public, it has to be just right.
Years ago, I read a story about a fifthgrader named Kenton Stufflebeam from Wisconsin who was on a family trip to the venerable Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Like millions of visitors before him, Kenton passed the Tower of Time, a display involving prehistoric time. Unlike millions of visitors, Kenton noticed something was amiss—a notation referred to the Precambrian as an “era.” (I don’t hear any screams of protest.) Kenton remembered that his teacher had told the class that the Precambrian is not an era but a dimensionless unit of time more accurately called a “supereon.”
His father took him to the museum’s information desk, where they lodged the concern in writing. A while later, Kenton received a letter from the Smithsonian stating that he was absolutely right. The note assured him that the problem had been rectified, not by advanced science but simply by painting over the word “era.” Ironically, in informing Kenton of the correction, the museum managed to misspell his last name!
At the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, we face an additional challenge. Unlike any museum thus far, KFHEC is the first to present the Holocaust though the Orthodox experience and a Torah perspective. This requires new research methodologies as well as the uncovering of new archival collections that shed light on a largely undocumented portion of history.
One of our social historians, Dr. Henri Lustiger-Thaler, explains, “It is extremely important to present the Holocaust in its complete historical scope. However, most Holocaust scholarship has ignored the unique role the Orthodox played in areas such as rescue, the religious rebirth which occurred in the displaced persons camps, and the halachic dilemmas that arose during the war.
“Through the unique collection efforts of the KFHEC archival staff, we now have thousands of donated documents that shed light on the Orthodox experience of the Holocaust. These collections allow us to better understand government archives, such as the War Refugee Board records in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. Our challenge is to access as many collections of documents as we can, which are all too often still lying in basements in the frum communities.”
We anticipate that our audience will be informed, involved and educated. We know that many of you will be prompted to share your knowledge after visiting KFHEC, but the best time to participate is right now. If you or someone you know has anything of interest to contribute, now is the time to get involved. The opportunity to help shape a Torah perspective on history is now!
Because although there may be some sharp-eyed fifth-graders out there, we really hope we won’t be painting over any words after we open.