The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has closed a portion of its permanent exhibition to remove one of its most moving and powerful artifacts: wooden barracks that housed prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
The barracks are being returned to Poland after the end of a long-term loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The Holocaust Museum has obtained similar barracks from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp to replace the original ones, which have been a centerpiece of the exhibition since the museum’s opening in 1993.
The new barracks will belong to the museum in Southwest Washington.
On Tuesday, the exhibition containing the barracks closed and will remain closed for five months to allow for the removal of the barracks and the installation of the new acquisition.
The portion of the third floor that is closed also contains prisoner food bowls, Zyklon B cans that once contained poison gas, a plaster model of the gas chamber and crematorium in Birkenau, and belongings of victims. Those artifacts and models will remain in the permanent exhibition, museum spokesman Andy Hollinger said.
The removal of the barracks comes after years of sensitive negotiations between the Polish government and the Holocaust Museum. In 2003, Poland passed a law stating that no historical artifact could remain on loan abroad for more than five years without being returned for inspection. Museum officials and several members of the team that designed the permanent exhibition worried that the new law could require significant artifacts to be returned to Poland, affecting the design of the museum.
In a statement, the Holocaust Museum said that the barracks are being returned and reassembled in Poland for purposes of inspection, and that returning them to the United States after inspection would have risked significant damage to the structure.
“The agreement we reached with Polish authorities allows us to adhere to Polish law and have a barracks from Birkenau in our permanent collection and display it in the Museum,” the statement said.
Still, the negotiations over the barracks caused tension between the museum and Polish officials in the past few years. The barracks are half a wooden building where dozens of prisoners slept as they awaited death. They are considered by the museum’s designers to be among the most chilling artifacts in the museum. The remaining half stands at Birkenau, one of the two death camps miles apart in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and project director for the museum during its construction, said that the museum was designed and built around the barracks.
“If you look at the pillars of the building, it has slats in them which take those barracks. It’s a complex operation to remove them,” Berenbaum said. “The good news is that the museum will receive barracks in return and will own that barracks so we don’t have to face this problem again. But the bad news is that it’s going to take five months and the museum experience will be less complete [during that time].”
In a previous interview with The Washington Post, the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, said that other objects in the collection have been returned to Poland for inspection under the 2003 law, but that the removal of the barracks would significantly alter the permanent exhibition.
“It is our priority to keep the barracks in the exhibition,” Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield could not be reached for comment on the replacement barracks, although the museum statement noted the importance of the compromise:
“The Museum is grateful to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and our Polish partners for working with us to reach an agreement that satisfies Polish law and allows the Museum to keep an important educational artifact on display.”