Building Memory: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C. opened its doors to an anxiously awaiting public in April, 1993. The mission of the USHMM is to act as, “America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this county’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.” [1] The museum works to construct this narrative using powerful images, interesting artifacts, and thought-provoking text. The museum presents this history in a purposefully designed structure that also conveys meaning to the visitor.

U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Exterior of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Architect James Ingo Freed worked to remove visitors form the busy D.C. metro area and place them in a haunting space. In his article, Understanding the Holocaust Through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jeffrey Karl Ochsner describes Freed’s approach. Freed, “chose to draw on the forms and the details of nineteenth and early-twentieth century industrial architecture – the architectural language found in the death camp buildings.” [2] This dark place of inspiration created an architectural design that starts the visitor on the journey through Holocaust history well before they read the introductory text panel.

Think - USHMM
Text panel at the USHMM.

Edward T. Linenthal outlines how the exhibition development team at the USHMM was able to work with the industrial styled architecture. They were able, not only to convey the history of the Holocaust, but to immerse the visitor to create meaning. Linenthal writes in his work, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum, “the design team believed that the interior mood had to be ‘visceral’ enough so that visitors would gain no respite from the narrative.” [3] The team at Ralph Applebaum Associates, was charged with designing the permanent exhibition. They worked within Freed’s structure to form spaces that would elicit strong reactions for the public. For example, the introduction to the death camp subject matter, has spaces that are “tight and mean.” They ledt walls unpainted, pipes exposed, and implemented dramatic lighting. There would be no escape from the subject matter in these areas, as the stories pressed in around the visitor.

The Tower of Faces is one of the most powerful displays in the museum; it showcases the collaboration between architect and exhibition content. The Tower rises three stories within the museum and contains just over 1,000 images from a single donor – the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection. The photographs were acquired by Yaffa Eliach, and portray the Jews of her childhood shtetl or town in Lithuania. During World War II, the German mobile killing squads killed approximately 4,000 of the town’s inhabitants. Only twenty-nine of those living in the village survived, including four year-old Yaffa. [4]

After decades of research, travel, and interviews, Eliach acquired nearly 6,000 images and was looking for a proper location to display and house her photograph collection. The USHMM and Eliach negotiated the terms of use and the decision was made, the photographs from this collection would be used in the Tower. The images were chosen, not just as a record of those that were murdered by the killing squads, but rather, to portray the life of the once thriving shtetl. As the viewer’s eye moves up the Tower, those pictured become more than just victims. They become human beings with full, rich lives and experiences that shaped the village where they lived.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a moving place. Here, the horrors of the past are on full display for the visitor to experience. Through a successful collaboration of architectural style and exhibition design, those stories can begin to take shape. Those faces on display, not just within the Tower but also throughout the building can be viewed as more than just victims of a senseless tragedy. They can be given a story, a life. From darkened, and ominous, exhibit spaces to the solemn Hall of Remembrance, the spaces within the USHMM are powerful triggers of emotion. This speaks to the successful union of design and the content interaction. Today, the museum serves as a vital reminder to the nation and the globe about the important fight against hatred, as relevant now as ever.


[1] The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, website, accessed March 1, 2016.

[2] Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. 1995. “Understanding the Holocaust Through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” Journal of Architectural Education. 4(48): 246.

[3] Linenthal, Edward T. Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. (Penguin Books, 1997), 169.

[4] Ibid., 176.


The United States Holocaust Museum,

Think About What You Saw Text Panel,

Featured: Tower of Faces,

12 thoughts on “Building Memory: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

  1. I liked your focus on the design of the physical space, which is such an important thing (and can often be overlooked in favor of content). The photo you shared with the museum name, the open wall space, and the single panel “think about what you saw” is incredibly powerful. Few museums are likely to be quite as purpose-designed as the Holocaust Museum, but these elements should be considered even when creating exhibitions in existing buildings.

  2. I have never been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum but Linenthal paints a powerful image of the physical space and the lengths that the creator went to to ensure the chronological and emotional accuracy of the museum. Using the photographs collected by Eliach in the Tower of Faces creates a haunting, overpowering feeling that I’m sure leaves the visitor speechless. It is the responsibility of museums to make sure the stories of both survivors and victims are told with truth and accuracy.

  3. Having been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum many times, you have done a great job discussing the internal architecture and the integral role it plays in developing the atmosphere of the museum. The Tower of Faces is one of the most powerful aspects of the museum, for me personally, because it shows you the faces of those who were murdered. It adds the humanistic aspect that can often be missed when talking about the millions.

    1. I completely agree, Trish. It concerns me that when talking about the Holocaust, the conversation often revolves around the number of those murdered. While it’s important to keep the magnitude of Nazi crimes in mind, we also have to remember that each one of those millions were individuals with personal histories. I like that the USHMM tries to humanize the victims of this tragedy using all the resources at their disposal, including the physical architecture.

      1. I have the same reaction as both of you. I feel that it’s important to remember the victims of the Holocaust as people, rather than simply remembering how they died. In Paris, there are a number of memorials that show Holocaust victims as skeletons on the verge of death. Although powerful imagery, these memorials make me uncomfortable. Not so much for the representation itself, as I believe it is important to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, but because that is the only way the victims are represented. If it was my relative being memorialized, I’m not sure I would want to see them as only one of millions of victims. I think it’s important to honor the lives and stories of those who died, as there is much more to people than the way that they die.

  4. I think that going to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum would be an impactful experience simply based on the architecture. This museum is clearly not just a big box, or a structure that was once used for something else, such as a historic home. Every single detail in the architecture was planned out and carefully constructed to evoke a very specific emotional response. I can imagine that the architecture, paired with the content, makes for a truly immersive experience.

  5. Like others have said, it’s great that you point out how deliberate the architecture and design of the USHMM is. Clearly the content of the exhibition is very powerful itself, however the blend of content and architecture can create a more immersive experience. I’m eager to see this museum and experience it in person.

  6. I remember going to the USHMM when I was maybe 14 and it was an incredibly powerful experience. What I am only beginning to appreciate much later is the extremely deliberate way every space was constructed both inside and outside of the museum, as you wonderfully describe in the blog post. We visited on a particular crowded day and I remember feeling cramped, like there were too many people, at times. After the visit my mom commented how trying to keep track of her children was giving her anxiety since there were so many people going through the museum. This aspect gave her an even more powerful experience when she realized how all the mothers in the camps wanted to do was keep track of and protect their children but that was a basic human right that was taken away from them.

  7. Physical space and atmosphere are such important aspects to an exhibit, and ones that I feel most people overlook. These aspects of an exhibit can really put the visitor into the situation like nothing else can. Most museums will not be able to change their actual architecture, but there are changes that they can make to heighten an exhibit’s impact. It is so interesting, though, that the USHMM was designed specifically for this purpose and although I have yet to visit myself, I think it’s clear that it has made an impact on visitors.

  8. I found the most powerful aspect of the museum that you pointed out was that in crafting the physical space where these themes would be explored, the designers strove for this space to convey a “visceral feeling” of the sense of the Holocaust and the experience of its victims. This is a profoundly powerful idea, for as Linenthal wrote, this was addressed by designing the exhibit, and carrying its themes, in a way that carried the pressure, the sense of presence and the developing knowledge of these events, throughout every aspect of the museum, mirroring the sense of pressure that accompanied those experiencing these things in Europe. The museum experience is not comparable, obviously, but the sense of carrying this pressure through and offering no respite by finding diverse interpretive devices and using tight physical space to keep visitors invested with a feeling of this pressure was, in my view, essential to the “visceral feeling” that was aimed for.

  9. Mikaela, I loved how you talked about how the Tower of Faces humanizes both the survivors and victims of the Holocaust. All too often, we forget that each and every one of the 11 million victims of the Holocaust (Jews, Roma, Jehovah Witnesses, Homosexuals, people with disabilities, and others) had a face, a life, a story. This is not intentional, of course, but it is very difficult to wrap our brains around that enormous number, and speaking about it as a mass of people might make it easier to understand. Doing so, however, tends to dehumanize the victims and survivors. This Tower, and your examination of it, help others to under stand the cost of this evil in terms of individuals, not just numbers but names and faces.

  10. Mikaela, this article really expands on what museums should be doing to help the public understand traumatic events in history. I agree the Tower of Faces is one of the most powerful exhibits and the architecture of the building is outstanding in creating the correct atmosphere to present those stories of individuals lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s