Museum of Tolerance, L.A.

  
   - darkometer rating:  7 -
 
The Museum of Tolerance (commonly referred to as MOT for short) in Los Angeles, California, USA, features multimedia-heavy exhibitions that focus on various forms of in-tolerance (in its attempt to teach and preach tolerance, of course). This ranges from hate-filled cocial-media postings on the Internet to full-blown genocide. The central and most important section is on the Holocaust (the MOT is affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center). Other sections cover the US civil rights movement, genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, terrorism, exploitation of women and children, and other serious topics. The overall approach of the MOT leans quite heavily towards the didactic, including some rather prescriptive modes of guidance, which does bring with it a few problematic aspects.  
 
The MOT is the premier educational branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has its headquarters and library just across the road from the museum.
 
The Center is named after one of the most prominent and most influential Holocaust survivors, who after WWII made a name for himself as a successful “Nazi hunter”. Wiesenthal had started collecting evidence right from the end of the war onwards, after he had been liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, and worked with the American war crime trials.
 
Later he founded the Jewish Documentation Centre, first in Linz, later in Vienna and concentrated on tracking down key perpetrators of the Holocaust who had mostly fled and assumed new identities. Wiesenthal's greatest success was his information- gathering work that led to the capture of Adolf Eichmann (and his subsequent trial and execution in Israel). But Wiesenthal was also instrumental in uncovering the whereabouts of Franz Stangl (commandant of Treblinka and previously at Schloss Hartheim) as well as the policeman who arrested Anne Frank.
 
The Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded in 1977, not by the man it is named after but by one Rabbi Marvin Hier. Wiesenthal himself remained based in Austria, where he died in 2005 (but he is buried in Israel).
  
The Wiesenthal Center has since established offices in several countries to pursue its mission of Holocaust remembrance, tolerance education and defence of human rights.
 
The MOT in Los Angeles was first opened in 1993. There is also a smaller branch in New York City. And currently a very large new branch is under construction right in the heart of Jerusalem, Israel
  
 
What there is to see:  There are actually several different exhibitions here. The two main, permanent ones are the "Tolerancenter" and the "Holocaust Exhibit". Both of these are located in the lower level beneath the lobby.
 
Access is via a walkway ramp that spirals down below a bright, whitewashed domed atrium which is vaguely reminiscent of a synagogue, while the spiralling ramp reminded me a bit of the Guggenheim in New York.
 
Before you can go down to the lower level, a museum attendant will give you a brief general introduction, then you can make your way down and through the exhibition independently.
 
On the way down you pass a long row of photographs showing Holocaust survivors from various countries and all walks of life, together with a brief quotation and some key biographical data.
  
In the centre of the lowest level under the atrium is a strange sculpture that looks like a man strapped upside down onto a three-dimensional rack in the shape of a Star of David when viewed from the front at ground level.
  
The exhibition space proper begins with a flashy intro involving some heavy media onslaught provided by clusters of flat-screens, then you are asked to choose between two doors to proceed: one is marked “prejudiced”, the other “unprejudiced”. I had read about this so I was prepared: you are of course supposed to go straight for the “prejudiced” door. Still, I couldn't help it and tried the “unprejudiced” door. It didn't open. So it is indeed either permanently locked or a fake altogether. I knew this, but just had to check it for myself.
  
So, now inescapably branded “prejudiced” you proceed into the first part of the exhibit(ion) proper. I can see why some people take issue with this intro gimmick. While it is probably true that it is impossible for any person to be completely unprejudiced, this treatment does have an air of moral superiority that can make you feel uncomfortable. Like you are being morally judged before even entering the exhibition … which you can then presume will aim to change your ideas.
  
Once inside, the multimedia heaviness continues. There are simple panels with just single words (e.g. “think”), multiple photo panels with short texts, videos playing and touchscreen monitors on which to punch up yet more texts, photos and video clips. The soundtracks coming over the museum's loudspeakers overlap, so it is at times hard to concentrate and take it all in. Too much distracting noise for my liking.
  
Thematically, this first section covers hate crimes, racial prejudice, Holocaust denial, anti-immigration propaganda, etc.; and it is quite modern in that it also covers the increasing dissemination of hate speech through the Internet and social media.
 
Also covered in this section is the growing fear and hatred of Muslims within America, which has even led to murders, in one case of a Sikh man who was mistaken for a “Muslim” on the basis of his beard, turban and dark skin. The Ku Klux Klan gets ample coverage as well, but also campaigns against intolerance and hate propaganda (such as the Wiesenthal Center's own globalhate.com).
 
There is loads of material available through the interactive screens, but I found the atmosphere of the exhibition detrimental to deeper exploring, especially from an auditory point of view, but also for the eyes. It is dark in this section so the screens and intense colours can put a strain on your visual perception.
 
There are two quasi-separate sections set aside for group use: one has the design of a typical American diner restaurant and is called “Point of View Diner”. Here groups of visitors (mostly likely school groups) are supposed to interact with a video presentation, and with each other. But we couldn't get it to work, presumably because it was just the two of us at the time of our visit.
 
The same applied to a similar group-interactive installation called “Millennium Machine”. From what I could gather this would have concentrated on human rights and everybody's own responsibilities in this respect.
 
I can't tell for sure how these group installations would have worked exactly, but I suspect that it would rather involve a good dose of “group dynamics” rather than factual information and independent, individual education. It's presumably more about “socialization”, than about informational learning. And as such clearly seems to be aimed at a younger generation, especially of (higher) school age. I felt quite a bit in the wrong place.  
 
The next larger section concentrates on the evolution of tolerance/intolerance in American history, and especially the African American Civil Rights movement. Its origins are traced from slavery through segregation, the Ku Klux Klan reappears, and then, in the more uplifting parts, Dr. Martin Luther King. Again, there are plenty of interactive-screen elements, though I found some of them not working very well technically (e.g. where you are supposed to change whole screens – as if swiping on a smartphone, but it was difficult to proceed in the correct order of screens; sometimes it went the wrong way or skipped sections).
 
The final part of this section of the museum deals with genocide. At its core is a film, projected onto three screens, called “In Our Time”. This covers exceedingly dark chapters such as Stalin's purges, the genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica. This I found a bit more interesting and to the point. It did include some quite gruesome images, though, so be warned (though I've read in an older review that this film used to be even more graphic in the past, but then was "toned down" a bit).
 
After this you come to the other main exhibition, which is totally separate from the Tolerance Exhibit, and can be regarded as the heart of the Center: the Holocaust Exhibit. The main difference here is that you cannot just walk through it at your own pace, but have to follow the, as they put it, “sound-and-light-guided […] dramatic presentation”.
  
Furthermore you are given a kind of ID card. This has the picture and name of a young person who went through the Holocaust and you can use it at various points in the exhibition to retrieve “updates”, i.e. personalized information about this person at interactive stations pertaining to different stages of the Holocaust. At the end of the exhibition you can learn whether “your” person survived or not – and get a printout with a summary of this particular personal story to take home with you.
  
The use of such “interactive IDs” is similar to those used at the USHMM or the Bremerhaven Emigration House. Here at least the cards are not discarded at the end (but reused), which avoids one of the criticisms of this particular attempt at making things more personalized.
  
The exhibition as such is like a walk-through theatre, but instead of actors there are just white dummies in mock-up settings such as a cafe, or a shopping street (with copies of Hitler's “Mein Kampf” in the window), and later bombed-out houses, while voices come as pre-recorded “dialogues” from the off. Changing spotlights guide your attention to the various components, until you are asked to move on to the following section, where the next “scene” then commences. Thematically this moves from growing anti-Semitism in German society to increasingly violent persecution and to the Holocaust as such.
 
This is certainly an approach that is highly exceptional and very different from any other Holocaust museum I've seen. On the one hand, it makes things easily digestible. You don't have to read anything or make any choices. Everything is just given in sound-bite form and easy-to-follow visual installations.
  
But it also means it remains rather superficial – and totally rigid. Again I had the distinct feeling that this was specifically aimed at schoolkids and people with a short attention span and lack of concentration if unaided. As an adult with a pretty good grounding in the historical subject matter I felt both under-challenged and a bit patronized.
  
At least there were only four of us there at the time. I can imagine this being even more uncomfortable when the museum is operating at full capacity, especially in the final part about the most murderous phase of the “Final Solution”, when you take your seats in a grey concrete chamber that is not dissimilar to what you may imagine a gas chamber to be like. The way into this chamber is via two entrances, one marked “able-bodied” the other “children and others” – I was half expecting a repeat of the “un-/prejudiced” door at the beginning of the Tolerancenter, but here both entrances are open – in any case in makes you feel uncomfortably like you are being subjected to a “selection” (which presumably is the point). 
  
It's not the whole Holocaust exhibition that is like this, however. There are also displays of original artefacts, for instance. These include some interesting documents and otherwise the usual striped camp clothes, old shoes, metal eating bowls, bits of barbed wire and a chart of the different categories of concentration camp inmates, as well as Nazi uniforms and insignia.
  
Added on to this section are also parts about helpers of Jews, in particular those given the title “Righteous Among the Nations”. Strangely, some of this remains unnecessarily anonymous.
  
This is followed by a section on the liberation of the camps and the beginning of the occupation of Germany by the Allies. A star exhibit here is the Mauthausen Flag – hand-made by inmates of the Mauthausen camp and presented to the American Army on liberation.
  
The final bit in this museum part is a faithful reconstruction of Simon Wiesenthal's office in Vienna, accompanied by a more informational display cabinet about this famous man – without whom this museum may never have come into existence.
  
As a third major component of the museum there is now a new Anne Frank experience, or rather “immersive experiential exhibit” in the museum's terminology (as would probably apply to the main Holocaust exhibit too).
  
I decided not to go there, however, for three reasons, a) it cost an extra admission fee as high as for the rest of the museum, b) I was beginning to run out of time, and c) because I have been to the real thing, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I didn't think I needed this add-on (and the museum attendant kind of agreed when I said so upon being offered a ticket).  
  
There are also additional temporary exhibitions, and these are included in the main admission ticket. When I was there (August 2015) there was one on immigration to America, which had two parts, namely a general one with, again, plenty of installations, such as a ship gangway, heaps of luggage, an Ellis-Island-like section, a shop mock-up with shelves full of wares from the olden days and such like. 
  
The second section was about individual immigrants who did well in America, such as the famous guitarist Carlos Santana who was born in Mexico and became a huge star in the USA (and worldwide).   
   
As I was just about to make my way out of the museum, I noticed there was a lecture being given in a separate room by a Holocaust survivor, who had been at Theresienstadt as a young boy. He was addressing an audience of a few dozen people seated in an auditorium, and we were able to sit at the back and eavesdrop on the stories and the Q&A afterwards. Apparently, such talks are a regular thing here, with several scheduled across the day (on Sundays in particular). Look out for the schedule posted at the museum when you get there.
  
The museum also has two shops, a souvenir shop on the top floor and a larger shop on the lobby level. There's a basic cafeteria as well, located on the top floor too.
  
All in all, my impression of this museum is quite ambivalent. On the one hand I can see it working as a first introduction to the topic of the Holocaust, especially for young people in this media-heavy day and  age. For adults who already have some knowledge of the topic, and don't need to be taken by the hand like this, it is definitely overly simplistic and too didactic an approach. You are not really left to contemplate and to make up your own mind, you are given a ready-made and fairly simple storyline and this is presented in a vocal and flashy way that has been accused of being “emotionally manipulative”.
  
Be that as it may, I would say that the way this institution is geared towards making an impact on mostly a certain clientele that will have relatively little overlap with the typical dark tourist, the latter may well skip this museum altogether. At least if it is novel insights or broader knowledge you are after. As an experience, in all its ambivalence, it is however an interesting thing to do even for a seasoned dark tourist like myself, if only for comparison to other approaches.
  
At the end of the day you have to decide for yourself whether that alone makes a visit to the MOT worth your while. As an alternative you could always go to the LAMOTH instead (or in addition).
 
 
Location: the museum is in the north-west of Los Angeles a good couple of miles east of the San Diego Freeway (405) on Pico Boulevard; address: 9786 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035, USA.
  
Google maps locator: [34.0538,-118.4017]
 
 
Access and costs: Easy enough to get to by car (less so by public); an admission fee is charged, not cheap but average.
 
Details: To get to the museum on public transport you can take the Metro line 14 to Beverwil/Pico and walk the last two blocks along Pico Blvd. But a car would make it easier, also given that the museum has its own underground parking, which is also free of charge. Access to parking opens ca. 15 minutes before the museum.
 
Security at the entrance is tight – expect metal detectors and bag screening etc.; and when using the underground parking you will also have to present your driving licence and open the boot for inspection. Some online reviewers take issue with the strict security regime, even though that is basically the same at any Jewish institution these days. That this is deemed necessary is sad enough, and even if it makes people uncomfortable, it is something we just have to accept these days (we do at airports too, so …).
 
Admission: 15.50 USD (12.50 USD for senior citizens (62 and over), and 11.50 USD for students and 5-18-year-olds). The ticket is good for all parts of the museum except the newer Anne Frank exhibition, for which an additional 15.50 USD (13.50/12.50) is charged!
 
Opening times: Mondays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (only to 3.30 p.m. on Fridays November to March), Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Saturdays. On some days, the museum closes early; and it stays closed altogether on various nationwide holidays and on all Jewish holidays (you can check the details on the MOT's own website).
  
The museum also strongly recommends reserving tickets in advance either by phone (310-772-2505) or by purchasing advance tickets online.
  
However, when I tried the latter from Europe it wouldn't work; I then emailed the museum, but never received a reply. In the end I just risked it, got there early on the day of my visit, and found the place largely empty even by the time I left a few hours later. It has to be pointed out, though, that this was in mid August, i.e. during the school holidays. It gets a lot busier at other times of the year.
  
Once inside you will be given a start time for visiting the main exhibition level; and if it is busy and there is a longer wait you can explore the other parts upstairs first. But make sure you're at the entrance to the exhibitions at least five minutes before your scheduled time.
 
 
Time required: between ca. two hours and half a day, depending on whether or not you also go and see all the extra/temporary exhibitions and how deep you want to immerse yourself in the freely interactive elements in the Tolerance Exhibit.
 
NOTE that it is not possible to rush through by skimming or skipping sections within the Holocaust Exhibit, since the tour is 100% pre-determined and of a fixed duration. 
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Los Angeles has yet another Holocaust museum, the LAMOTH. Thematically this is a natural combination, of course, and the approaches of the two institutions are also different enough to justify going to both.
 
Furthermore there is the Museum of Death, which is an altogether different kettle of fish. It's more amateurish and much more macabre, in parts even shockingly ghoulish, and so is not for the faint of heart – nor for those looking for a sober, factually informative and well commodified museum. It's less about education than about testing your limits, really. Still, it's certainly a major dark-tourism attraction. Just not of the kind that would easily combine with the two Holocaust museums. 
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Los Angeles.
 
 
 
  • MOT 01 - main atriumMOT 01 - main atrium
  • MOT 02 - sculptureMOT 02 - sculpture
  • MOT 03 - mediaMOT 03 - media
  • MOT 04 - closed doorMOT 04 - closed door
  • MOT 05 - what tolerance requiresMOT 05 - what tolerance requires
  • MOT 06 - interactive group discussion installationMOT 06 - interactive group discussion installation
  • MOT 07 - marching onMOT 07 - marching on
  • MOT 08 - Civil Rights MovementMOT 08 - Civil Rights Movement
  • MOT 09 - the darkest chapters of modern historyMOT 09 - the darkest chapters of modern history
  • MOT 10 - it is still a current topicMOT 10 - it is still a current topic
  • MOT 11 - in the Holocaust exhibitionMOT 11 - in the Holocaust exhibition
  • MOT 12 - calm before the stormMOT 12 - calm before the storm
  • MOT 13 - destructionMOT 13 - destruction
  • MOT 14 - concentration camp artefactsMOT 14 - concentration camp artefacts
  • MOT 15 - Mauthausen flagMOT 15 - Mauthausen flag
  • MOT 16 - grimMOT 16 - grim
  • MOT 17 - Wiesenthal sectionMOT 17 - Wiesenthal section
  • MOT 18 - reconstruction of his officeMOT 18 - reconstruction of his office
  • MOT 19 - Nazi-era Vienna phone bookMOT 19 - Nazi-era Vienna phone book
  • MOT 20 - extra emigration exhibitionMOT 20 - extra emigration exhibition
  • MOT 21 - monuments outsideMOT 21 - monuments outside
 
 
 
 
 


 
  
 

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