The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as staff members and visitors alike are wont to repeat, is unlike other museums. The memorial to Holocaust victims, with its sobering galleries and artifacts, inspires the sort of quiet contemplation more associated with houses of worship than art museums. Even the architecture — particularly the atrium’s steel-ribbed ceiling — suggests visitors have passed through a portal to a different world than the one they left outside.
But a year after celebrating its 20th anniversary, as survivors age and the era without eyewitnesses looms, the museum has been forced to evolve. On Sept. 10, it launched a mobile app designed to complement a museum visit, effectively reversing a ban on smartphone use in its permanent collection. (The launch was so soft that several days after the app was live, museum staff members were still directing incoming visitors to turn off their phones.)
Museum officials say they will announce a reversal of the ban on photography in the permanent exhibit later this fall. The ban has been in place since the museum opened in 1993.
The changes, staff members say, are designed to reach young people. The museum will face challenges balancing young visitors’ digital appetites with preservation of the galleries’ distinct, meditative aura, which has been forged in part by the policies that are being reversed, the officials say.
“One of our challenges in general is engaging young people,” says Michael Abramowitz, director of the museum’s National Institute for Holocaust Education.
The museum can’t buck the reality that young people are increasingly experiencing the world on their mobile devices, Abramowitz adds, noting that some visitors violate the policy. “I think what will be important is to try to maintain the kind of decorum and respect in these places,” he says.
When the museum throws open the photographic floodgates, it will align itself with area institutions, such as the Smithsonian, the Newseum and the Phillips Collection, which permit photography broadly — typically without flash or tripods, and sometimes with the exception of loaned works or exhibits, for which the lender sets the policy.
Photography is also permitted at Holocaust museums in Atlanta, the Detroit area and Los Angeles, as well as at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York. But other Holocaust museums, such as those in Houston, Florida and Illinois, do not permit photography.
A 10-minute walk from the 9/11 Memorial, the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust has prohibited photography in its galleries for at least the 8 1 / 2 years that Betsy Aldredge, director of media relations, has worked there. But that might change soon.
“It’s definitely something that we are interested in exploring if we can find a way that makes sense given the sensitivities of our collection, and that protects artifacts,” she says.
And some people take photographs despite museum policy, which both Aldredge and Abramowitz have observed. One such visitor was Juan David Romero, an intern at the New Republic. When he visited the museum in July, Romero was profoundly affected by the otherworldly smell of a collection of 4,000 victims’ shoes, an installation in the museum’s permanent exhibit.
“It’s the smell of all the things they went through, all the people that wore those shoes, the places they walked or didn’t walk, the steps they took or didn’t take,” he says.
A photo of the shoes, which Romero uploaded on Instagram, drew “likes” from several followers, one of whom echoed his caption, “Pretty sad.” But taking and uploading that photo violated the policy, which is posted on the museum’s Web site and on signs at each entrance. Staff members tell visitors about the rule when they enter the initial elevator.
Romero knew when he took the picture that photography was not permitted in some areas. “I think the policy should be rethought,” he says. “I feel it’s a part of history, and people who are not able to come to the exhibit should be able to have access to it.”
Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which recently launched its own app, agrees. “We are all in this kind of a battle for attention,” he says. “We are all trying to make sure what we are doing has the highest impact and the most reach, but we have to do it with a certain amount of care and understanding.”
Museums play multiple roles in people’s lives, and they can provide “a place for serenity, for spirituality, for calm in an otherwise crazy city” and an educational experience that viewers can supplement with mobile technology, Sreenivasan says.
But the Met, he knows, is not the Holocaust Museum. The smiling selfie that a teenager took in Auschwitz in June “could happen 50 times a day if they aren’t careful,” he says.
As mobile phones have become ubiquitous, museums need to adjust to what their visitors are telling them, Sreenivasan said. “The instinct that people have is that they want to share,” he says. “But we can still hold the line so that you aren’t having dance parties inside the library.”
Abramowitz, the museum official, acknowledges that it would be impossible for employees to monitor and respond to inappropriate visitor posts. But staff members hope that the museum’s status as a memorial to victims and a repository of artifacts that belonged to those victims “will have some kind of calming effect on the normal social- media craziness,” he says.
When it lifts the photography ban, the museum will probably post “something along the lines that say, ‘Taking photos and sharing them is permitted throughout the exhibition, but as you do this, please respect this memorial,’ ” Raymund Flandez, museum communications officer, says.
Wecker is a freelance writer.