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Putting Holocaust history on display

By The Partnership for Public Service,

The Holocaust occurred more than a half century ago and on another continent, but in downtown Washington, D.C., Edward “Ted” Phillips makes sure that the important history of Nazi Germany is told for the ages and that visitors understand what led to those World War II atrocities.

In his work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Phillips oversees the well-known permanent exhibition, with its powerful display of shoes that belonged to Holocaust victims and a German-built freight rail car that was one of several types used to transport Jews and other victims to concentration camps and killing centers.

But as director of Exhibitions and Resources, he also oversees the museum’s traveling and special exhibitions, which highlight some lesser known Holocaust stories, such as the Nazi persecution of homosexuals and book burnings.

“The content of the Holocaust is endlessly fascinating in so many ways, both negative and positive,” Phillips said. “Our charge is to make that understood.”

A museum can’t tell stories with just words. Holocaust Museum staff has to create interesting displays with artifacts and items from its archive and others around the world.

For example, the current special exhibition that runs through next October, called “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” presents rare posters, photographs, artifacts and film footage on the pivotal role that propaganda played in the Nazis’ efforts to attain power.

They include a gramophone that Hitler hoped Germans would use to listen to martial music and recorded speeches in their homes, and the IBM headphones and translation system from the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi leaders were prosecuted, that began in 1945. Gathering these types of historical objects used to involve long research trips to Europe, but the Internet has assisted greatly with the search.

Phillips said he likes “the idea of taking history’s stories and turning them into three dimensions through artifacts and the design process.” He makes sure that the text that accompanies exhibitions reads with as much clarity as possible, writing most of it himself.

“We are a living memorial and his [Phillips’] job is at the heart of that, being the translator” said Sarah Ogilvie, director of the National Institute for Holocaust Education. “The content has to be shown in a way people can engage with that and find their own meaning with it.”

Considering that less than 10 percent of the museum’s 1.7 million annual visitors are Jewish and still find connections with the museum’s exhibitions is something Phillips finds “extraordinary.”

In working on displays, Phillips and his staff have to overcome technical challenges, including protecting the fragile paper of light-sensitive posters. And, they have to find many more posters and artifacts than visitors will see during any one visit. “Every three months a significant portion of the exhibition is changed out and replaced,” he said.

Finding the best institutions to host traveling exhibitions presents another challenge. For the exhibition on Nazi book burnings, libraries were a natural match. But the themes of other exhibitions don’t quite fit into museums of art or American history.

One exhibition on the unethical medical experimentation of Jews found a place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York in September and will remain there until January 7.

Most people, even locals, don’t realize that the Holocaust museum is a federal agency, although it also receives private funds. Phillips is a trustee of taxpayer dollars as much as any other federal official.

And, most visitors don’t realize that the Holocaust Museum, even the permanent exhibition, continually changes and evolves. For example, under an agreement with the State Museum at Majdanek in Lublin, Poland, the 4,000 shoes that had been on display for 20 years had to be returned in 2009.

The display remains, however. Last year, the museum secured a five-year loan of another 4,000 shoes, along with prisoner uniforms. Staff also borrowed items from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum that included victim’s personal belongings, such as kitchen utensils, hair brushes and eyeglasses.

The themes the museum explores don’t stop with World War II. Phillips and his staff of 17 also work to link Holocaust history to current events. An exhibition on the1936 Berlin Olympics was timed to open the same day as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. An upcoming exhibition on Sudan will explore genocide in that African nation.

“Originally, our program was looking at specific events of the Holocaust,” Phillips said. “Now we want topics that cover broader current themes and make us think about who we are as human beings in the 21st century. Nazi propaganda involves larger issues that still echo today.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/fed-player to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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