Holocaust Museum Turns 20 as Sara Bloomfield Ends Controversies

Steady Leadership Helps Bring Success to Memorial

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By Nathan Guttman

Published August 01, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.

Two images attest to Sara Bloomfield’s success as director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — one clearly visible, the other hidden from sight.

The obvious marker of Bloomfield’s success can be found daily alongside the museum’s starkly designed building, where, even 20 years after its opening, lengthy lines of visitors snake for blocks. The museum has become a must-see attraction on Washington’s National Mall.

The other sign, noticed by only those closely following the institute’s short history, is what’s missing: blaring headlines announcing new controversies about the museum’s operation.

That’s in marked contrast to the Holocaust museum’s turbulent early years. And many observers credit Bloomfield with this achievement.

Bloomfield, said Michael Berenbaum, a prominent Holocaust scholar who conceptualized and created the content of the museum’s permanent exhibition, brought “stability and leadership that were not there before.”

At the time of the museum’s 1993 opening, no one envisioned that Bloomfield, then a midlevel manager there, would one day head it, much less head it for the majority of its next two decades. An administrator whose expertise lay in operations rather than in academic research, Bloomfield lacked the name recognition of her more illustrious predecessors.

“On paper, people could say she is not the right person to run the museum,” said Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “But what the museum needed was not a scholar but a real good administrator and fundraiser. She is a great administrator who is modest enough not to make a pretense of being a scholar.”

The museum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was a focus of controversy even before its inauguration. Its roots lay in the decision by President Jimmy Carter to establish the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, under the chairmanship of Elie Wiesel, to recommend an appropriate national memorial of the Holocaust. The commission’s recommendation, to establish a museum in Washington, sparked heated debate. Unlike most of the other federal museums in the nation’s capital, this one would not deal with an explicit aspect of the American experience, but with an atrocity committed by a foreign nation against its own citizens and nationals of other foreign nations, and all on foreign soil an ocean away.

Nevertheless, Congress voted unanimously in 1980 to establish the museum on the National Mall, on 1.9 acres of land adjacent to the Washington Monument. And the presidentially appointed United States Holocaust Memorial Council ultimately raised $190 million from private, mostly Jewish sources to supplement federal appropriations of $53 million to make the museum a reality.

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