History Museums and Hate

Yesterday afternoon brought the terrible news about the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  When I heard the news, my first thought was of my friends and colleagues who work there.  The museum community in Washington is very close-knit; so many of us went to graduate school together, and through internships and job changes, it’s hard not to have a friend at just about every museum.  And we all know museum guards who are dedicated to the safety of the museum, staff, and visitors.  To many museum workers, guards are the friendly faces who greet us each morning, but yesterday’s shooting reminds us all how important their jobs are and how heroic they can be. 

But what’s really got me thinking is the idea of a museum as a target for a politically-charged attack.  These days, many museums are struggling to find their place in such a rapidly changing world.  So much information is immediately available online today that even newspapers are going out of business because they’re too slow; in fact, I learned of the shooting yesterday within minutes of its happening by a news alert sent to my Blackberry. 

So what role does a museum have in a world that moves at breakneck speed?

Museums exist to record and remind us of our own history.  And not just the pretty, flag-waving, band-playing, triumphant history.  One of the most important things museums can do today is teach us about the worst parts of ourselves, so that we can learn from our past, and be better for it.

The Holocaust Museum was a target yesterday because it was doing its JOB, and doing it WELL.  We should not let this act of violence intimidate us as museum professionals; rather, it should remind us that we have a big job ahead of us, as we have a long way to go. 

–Sandra Smith


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