It was a fantastic opportunity to host the Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) recently as the keynote speaker for our annual Betty & Shmuel Rosenkranz Oration. With 30 years of experience at this world-class museum – 22 of these as the director – it was inspiring to have Sara Bloomfield engage with MHM staff across various workshops.
From meeting with Sara, it is clear why USHMM is a leader in Holocaust education in America and the world. Sara speaks with steadfast authority, sharing her insights with years of experience and detailed research to support her positions.
Over the week, Sara fuelled thoughtful conversation on numerous topics within the Holocaust education sphere. It was evident that her insights were under-pinned by key principles Sara and her team of over 480 staff and 300 volunteers adhere to. We were pleased to find that we share many of the core values USHMM embodies, which have guided us throughout our redevelopment project over the past three years.
Let’s explore at some of the core insights Sara shared with us over the week:
Listen to your audience
Sara spoke about the common mistake many museums make in assuming what their audience wants rather than asking them what they want.
After concerns that USHMM’s display on the Nuremberg Trials — representing a highly engaging and important area of Holocaust history — was not engaging visitors the way they had anticipated, they completed extensive visitor research to understand their audience’s behaviour.
The study suggested visitors often passed the display without stopping to look at the artefacts because there was “too much” information to digest, which overwhelmed the audience. The team transformed the display and removed multiple artefacts, leaving just three in the exhibit, resulting in a much higher rate of visitor engagement.
Sara and her team live by this “less is more” approach and the power of communicating information in a way that best drives engagement among their audience.
The USHMM is guided by its extensive visitor research, which they complete annually. As we look to reopen our museum, we are working tirelessly on an ‘experience master plan,’ met with comprehensive audience research to ensure our visitors have a meaningful experience.
Empower the individual
Simply put, museums do not exist to tell people what to think. From USHMM’s exhaustive research, the data informs them that exhibits that try to manipulate their audience to a certain point of view can leave visitors feeling disempowered.
Instead, USHMM exhibitions provide their audience with evidence – based on their collection spanning documents, artefacts, photos, films, books, and testimonies – and allow their visitors to interpret it themselves.
Sara argues this approach drives engagement and critical thinking, with visitors feeling inspired and empowered by what they learnt at the museum.
As a museum that reflects similar values, we look forward to providing an exhibition space that invokes curiosity in its visitors. We want our audience to come away from our museum feeling inspired to continue their Holocaust education journey and the agency to impact their community.
Holocaust education is essential in the 21st century
During Sara’s Oration address, she summed up the importance of Holocaust education in the 21st century in one thoughtfully simplistic yet exceptionally complex sentence:
“The Weimar Republic did not know they were standing on the edge of the abyss.”
With the USHMM tagline What you do matters, Sara posited that history plays an essential role in helping us to navigate current issues.
Without the capacity to predict the future, the blessing of retrospection allows us to take lessons from the Holocaust and apply them to present-day situations. The Weimar Republic had no idea of the horrors that would befall Europe in the years following 1933.
We do not know what the next ten, twenty, or one hundred years will hold. One thing we do know: amplifying the voices of Holocaust survivors with testimony and artefacts will help us navigate current issues with an evidence-based understanding of the by-product of unchecked hate.
If you would like to view Sara’s Oration, you can watch it here.