THE U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors 10 years ago this month following years of skeptical questions: What was a museum dedicated to an event of European and Jewish history doing on the Mall? Was the Holocaust in any real sense part of the American experience? Should the museum address other genocides as well? These questions had -- and still have -- no adequate philosophical or theoretical answers. For while the Holocaust is in some respects unique, it is not so different from other efforts by one people to wipe out another as to have a claim on American consciousness that transcends the time and place in which it occurred. Indeed, if the Holocaust museum were not among the finest historical exhibits of any kind, on any subject, anywhere, its existence at the central square of American democracy would be difficult to justify.
Yet from the day it opened, the museum's excellence has overwhelmed its apparent incongruity. Its portrait of totalitarianism seems a fit warning among the monuments to democracy's founders; its portrait of the destruction of the Jews of Europe, even in its specificity and particularism, conveys something universal about oppression and its victims. And the controversy over the museum, predictably, did not persist. Few today would question the value of a museum that educates so many at such a high level of seriousness on a subject of such gravity.
The public response has been remarkable. The Holocaust museum has seen 18.9 million visitors -- an astonishing figure given that the subject matter with which it entices tourists and school groups involves some of the world's darkest hours. Walking through the museum takes hours, and many people leave feeling defeated by its vast quantities of historical information and pressing emotional power. Yet it draws. A decade after it opened, people still sometimes have trouble getting in. And crowding, says the museum's director, Sara Bloomfield, is the main complaint among those who do. Many museums would pray for such problems. The message in the museum's accomplishment is an encouraging one: People want good history -- cogently presented but not dumbed down, either intellectually or morally. It's a lesson that should inspire other institutions.