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This exhibit marks the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's 25th anniversary by turning the mirror onto pre-war Americans and the nation’s understanding of and reaction to the Holocaust as it unfolded. Using public opinion polls, first person perspectives, news reports, archival footage, period films, and information available to Americans of the era, the exhibit suspends hindsight to put visitors in the mindset of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The exhibit is H+R’s fifth for USHMM.
The interpretive program required a highly nuanced approach. Instead of questioning, “What should have America done?” the exhibit focuses on the information Americans were receiving in newspapers, publications and newsreels, builds out the factual context of the events of the era, and asks visitors to draw their own conclusions. Parallels and contrasts with the present day are allowed to emerge naturally, and all the more powerfully.
H+R successfully employed a variety of strategies to keep visitors oriented to the history — which spans 12 years — and fully-engaged with the debates that were going on during that period. To prevent visitors from getting lost in the chronology, we created a series of “mile markers” at each section's introductory panel, with headers reading "It is 1933...", "It is 1938...", etc. and with overhead media programs flashing the broadcast news of the day. To keep visitors in the period and suspend hindsight, we used vintage magazines, newspapers, and newsreels to give the visitor an unfiltered view of public opinion and debate. And to make this difficult subject matter approachable and relevant to the present, we created a series of pylons each of which asks our modern visitor an opinion poll question first posed to the public in the 1930s and 1940s. The surprising "reveal" is that the answers to the polls show that Americans of the time were xenophobic and fearful of letting immigrants into the country. A large immigration chart on one wall dramatizes this situation by showing that the number refugees let into the country was much less than the allowable quota, and that the waiting lists (shown as suitcase icons which extend onto the floor) were enormous. A multi-user interactive in front of the chart tells the individual story of refugees, most of whom were unable to enter the country and, consequently, murdered in concentration camps.