On January 26, 2019, the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center (HHC) re-opened at its new home within Cincinnati’s Union Terminal. The opening, which coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the culmination of 18 months of highly collaborative planning, design, and construction. JRA, which has a twenty-year relationship with the Holocaust & Humanity Center, provided museum design for the new space in partnership with Berenbaum Jacobs Associates.
The mission of the Holocaust & Humanity Center is to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust inspire action today. The museum’s new location is especially poignant, as over 1,000 Holocaust survivors and refugees arrived by train to Union Terminal to begin their new lives in Cincinnati. The Holocaust and Humanity Center’s exhibits are divided among two galleries, each featuring thoughtful museum design, multi-layered visitor experiences, and innovative storytelling. While Holocaust Gallery chronicles the courage, strength, and triumph of survivors during one of the darkest periods in history, the Humanity Gallery shows visitors how they can drive positive change in their communities.
The Holocaust & Humanity Center recently celebrated its first year at Union Terminal, which also coincided with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We asked HHC Chief Executive Officer, Sarah Weiss, to reflect upon what the relocation has meant for the museum.
JRA: What are the various ways that HHC has been able to expand its programming and extend its reach?
HHC: Being in a more visible, central and “must-see” location has certainly helped us expand our reach. We have grown our visitation by 400%, with many more schools and drop-in visitors than ever before. We have also seen a rise in attendance at our public programs, which we believe also has to do with location, as visitors can spend an entire day in Union Terminal. In 2020, we hope to reach even more of the general public.
JRA: What have been the greatest surprises? Challenges?
HHC: The move from Rockwern Academy to Union Terminal was a tremendous undertaking, requiring the support and expertise of consultants, donors, architects, and staff members. We’ve been inspired by the 35,000 people who have visited the museum since its opening at Union Terminal. Visitors have come from 45 states in the first year, and we estimate that about 80% of them are not Jewish. A great challenge for us has been how to manage the large school groups we have been attracting in our new home, several of which come from several hours away. In addition to the growth in attendance, one of the nice surprises has been the increased interest in donating archival materials to us. Since opening, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our collections.
JRA: Are there specific experiences within the museum that have particularly resonated with people?
HHC: Many people have been moved by the Orientation film and how we tell the history of the Holocaust through the voices of local survivors, witnesses and liberators who experienced it firsthand. It really helps visitors form a connection to the history. Also, visitors are inspired by our relationship to the Union Terminal building, which was the entry point for many of the local survivors featured in our exhibit. In addition, the trains are a major topic of conversation. Trains have a symbolic connection to the Holocaust, but they are also the transportation vehicle that brought people to their new lives. Visitors are surprised by the Humanity Gallery and Make Your Mark wall, and the idea that we all can make a difference in our lives and community. We’ve had visitors say they leave inspired and hopeful, and we would have never expected that from a Holocaust museum.
JRA: How has the reaction to the museum varied between students, survivors, and the general public?
HHC: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. They really like how interactive the museum is and how they can learn about the Holocaust from local survivors, witnesses and liberators. They also like the Humanity Gallery and being introduced to individuals from our community who are making change in our community and world today. There is a lot of word of mouth and people visiting more than once, as you can learn more each time you come. For the survivors and those connected to the museum, there seems to be a feeling of pride that these stories are here.
JRA: What’s next? What are the goals as you enter Year 2?
HHC: In our second year at Union Terminal, our goal is to increase museum visitation and educate more of the general public. We are steadfast in our mission to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust inspire action today. We will also be celebrating our 20th year and look forward to meaningful programs and bringing in a special exhibition.
JRA: You mention in a recent article the rise in anti-Semitic activity over the past several years. What are some of the ways that we can translate the lessons of the Holocaust & Humanity Center to our daily lives?
HHC: According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2018 and 2019, there were 6,768 incidents of extremism or antisemitism in the U.S. Since 2018, approximately 204 incidents were reported in Ohio alone. The Center’s mission to educate the community about the lessons of the Holocaust has never been more critical than it is today.
There are ways that all of us can be “upstanders” in our daily lives. As an upstander, you can be the person who speaks out or who intervenes in situations of prejudice, anti-Semitism, and injustice.
The trained experts at the Holocaust & Humanity Center offer interactive experiences that teach visitors how to oppose hate and antisemitism in today’s world. Using guidelines from the VIA Institute on Character, museum visitors can learn about their own personal characteristics and how they can leverage their strengths to make a difference in their communities.
JRA: Anything else you would like our readers to know?
HHC: With sensitivity and respect, the museum tells the stories of Holocaust survivors and the horrific experiences that occurred, but visitors will also leave inspired to make a difference in their own communities today. Visitors end their museum experience by walking through the Humanity Gallery, where they can explore moments and see the stories of individuals who activated their character strengths to become upstanders and bring change to the world.