Holocaust Museum LA
This institution, formerly known as LAMOTH (an acronym that stood for 'Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust'), and not to be confused with the MOT
, is L.A.
's other museum on this topic. Does a city need two Holocaust
museums, you may ask. Well, yes and no. The approaches of the two institutions are very different, so in a way they can be said to complement one another. While the MOT is much more didactic and multimedia-heavy and aimed more at teaching tolerance to younger people, the Holocaust Museum LA is more for adults and comparatively restrained in its use of audio-visuals. It gives a more sober historical-cultural account (also presupposing more previous knowledge!) but does not have as wide a thematic scope as the MOT. So there is a space and purpose for both of them.
During the years in between, it apparently was a comparatively low-key affair. Then, after losing its modest previous home in the 1994 earthquake, it only continued in a more temporary form, a part travelling, part leased-out collection, whose future as a “museum” was hanging by a thread.
But then in 2007 a huge windfall suddenly came their way. The museum received a massive donation from E. Randol Schoenberg, an L.A. lawyer (and grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg – cf. Central Cemetery, Vienna
) who had just won a landmark court case. It was a case about restitution of Nazi-looted Jewish art, in this instance involving one of the highest-profile works of art to have come out of Austria, the famous painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer” (aka “golden Adele”) by Gustav Klimt, then on public display at the Belvedere art gallery in Vienna
Thanks to Schoenberg's efforts, the claimant Maria Altmann (nee Bloch-Bauer – niece of the original owner) won her case against Austria
and the painting was returned to her in 2006. (You may have seen a dramatized version of the story in the 2015 movie “Woman in Gold”). Soon after, Altmann sold the painting for a whopping 135 million USD to a private New York
From his substantial share of the proceeds, Schoenberg then gave 7 million to the LAMOTH, became its president and oversaw the creation of the new museum that you see today. The museum also received a bequest from the Maria Altmann Family Foundation.
The outcome is a remarkably modern museum building – even though it is nearly invisible. Most of it is subterranean and the upper level and grass-topped roof blend into the surrounding Pan Pacific Park almost seamlessly. The building is also green in an environmentally friendly sense (energy efficiency, etc.) and has won awards for this. The official opening of the museum took place on 14 October 2010.
What there is to see (and hear):
On arrival at the museum's reception desk you are are offered an audio guide. And even if you are (like me) not a great fan of these devices, this is a place where it really pays off using one. That's because it is not, as is often the case elsewhere, merely an add-on to the museum's traditional commodification
by text panels. Instead it largely replaces that sort of narrative. Many artefacts are merely labelled by a number – the one to press on the audio guide – and without the audio guide you get no explanation whatsoever.
There are some text panels in the museum too, but mostly just as general overviews of thematic subsections. And of course there are also documents, as well as photos and objects that can speak for themselves. But to get the full story you need the audio guide. The narration on it varies greatly in length, detail and relevance. At some points it gets excessively long, sometimes it is very brief. But you can always skip bits and be generally selective.
The walk through the exhibition starts at the reception desk, where there is still some daylight streaming in. But as you move on, you descend, literally, at a very slight incline, down and deeper into darkness – the heart of the museum has no windows and only very subdued artificial light. Towards the end there's a slight upwards incline again and you move back towards natural light. The symbolism intended in this needs no comment.
Content-wise, the exhibition starts with a rather lavish illustration of Jewish life before Nazism and WWII
– going back to ancient times even. There are everyday items, religious objects, photos and so forth, and you can play around with a large interactive screen called “The World That Was Memory Pool Table”.
But the happier times soon give way to darker chapters – such as the Anschluss of Austria
to the German Reich
in 1938 and the impact this had on the Austrian Jews. One item of note here is an original diary by a young Jewish girl providing an impression of the fears and chaos of those days (if you can read the original German, especially).
Functioning like a cross between a common thread and kind of “localization”, copies of the full front pages of the Los Angeles Times, etched onto metal panels, show, amongst all other news, articles relating to the museum's theme, from the earliest onset of Nazi
anti-Semitism through to WWII
, the Holocaust
and its aftermath. The articles that are relevant to the museum's theme are marked by a yellow triangle on each panel, so they are easy to identify. These articles certainly put paid to the idea that people in the US were too under-informed about what was happening in Europe at the time!
And yet there was the story of the St Louis – the Jewish emigration ship turned away by the USA
. Naturally this story gets special coverage in this museum. I found the collection of American cartoons from that time commenting on Jewish refugees especially enlightening.
Harder to stomach is the display of Nazi
propaganda, especially the “eugenics”-based anti-Semitic racism in schoolbooks, posters and postcards. The Nuremberg
race laws naturally follow on from this .. as does the coverage of the first concentration camp
Moving further into the darkness, a few artefacts stand out. There are suitcases and a couple of shoes as well as a pair of spectacles – items on loan from the museum at Auschwitz
. Representing the “euthanasia
” crimes of the Nazis, there is a scale model of Hartheim Castle
– which looks uncannily like an exact copy of the one on display there (or is it the original on loan here too?).
The topic of ghettoization is amply illustrated next, including the display of the typical yellow stars Jews were forced to wear. Following this, graphic images accompany the coverage of the Einsatzgruppen
mass murders in the USSR
from 1941 (with familiar photos of the Skede
and Babi Yar
massacres in particular).
As an aside, the attack on Pearl Harbor
is mentioned, which not only dragged America into WWII
, but also saw the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry in the USA
. Is this to insinuate that that was the same as German concentration camps? While it is interesting to make this comparison (even though it somewhat disrupts the flow of the exhibition's main storyline), it could have done with bit more detailed info and argumentation. As it is, it just hangs in the air, open to all kinds of random interpretation.
What follows is an installation resembling a deportation rail car. This is a common exhibit in US Holocaust museums (cf. USHMM
, Illinois Holocaust Museum
, Dallas Holocaust Museum
), but here they obviously couldn't obtain a real one, so made do with this reconstruction.
The latter is illustrated in particular through a scale model of the Sobibor
death camp. This was actually made (from memory) by prominent Sobibor survivor Thomas Blatt
(one of only a small handful to survive this camp) and donated to the museum as early as 1978. Here you get a video and long narrative by Blatt himself explaining all the details of the camp. This is the single longest section on the audio guide. But it is probably the “star exhibit” of this museum, so deserves some extra attention and time.
Another, more modern and interactive, illustration of the topic of the camps is a cluster of touchscreens mounted onto sticks where you can punch up info and photos about 18 labour camps/concentration camps
, including Majdanek
, Gurs, Dora
, Maly Trostenec
… but also transit camps such as Drancy
The gloomy room is lit primarily through large backlit photographs of the deportations of Jews from various countries, of the selections and the camp crematoria. At the far end, two sets of striped camp inmate clothes hang against a white wall. And above them you can make out the legend “Arbeit macht frei” – a rather crude reconstruction of that infamous line frequently found above camp gates.
Mixed into all this are also the topics of medical experiments and the death marches towards the end of the war. Also thrown in here is a panel mentioning other genocides
, Darfur), the origin of the term 'genocide' and the question of the definition of this concept.
In a side room is a special separate small exhibition about one specific village in southern Poland
, Wielopole, which also was the scene of Nazi atrocities and which was revisited by survivors on a family reunion mission.
Also as an add-on you can find two computer workstations crammed under the stairs in the centre of the exhibition. Here you can access an archive of survivor interview videos collected by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute (they are also played at the end of the exhibition – see below).
Moving slowly upwards and towards more natural light again, the stories of resistance and heroic help offered to Jews are picked up. The revolts in some camps (e.g. Sobibor
) as well as in the Warsaw Ghetto
are covered, as are the stories of Anne Frank
(and her helpers) and the more famous “Righteous Among the Nations” (cf. Yad Vashem
) such as Raoul Wallenberg
or Oskar Schindler (see Krakow
). The resistance group “White Rose
” within Germany
gets a mention as well.
The last section of the permanent exhibition is about “Life after Liberation”. Particular emphasis is given here also to the topic of music! There's a grand piano and large cabinet displaying scores of music – some of which originated or played a role during the Holocaust itself.
This is followed by a room for temporary exhibitions (of paintings when I was there) and what the museum refers to as the “Tree of Testimony” – an installation on the far wall of 70 (!!!) video screens of varying (mostly small) sizes along a metal rack vaguely resembling the branches of a tree.
The video screens all show survivor/witness testimonies/interviews – all at once. But you can switch between the individual soundtracks on your audio guide. Listening to all of them, however, would be rather overwhelming. In fact it would be impossible – as this installation ploughs through the entire collection of 52,000 testimonies held in the archives of the Shoah Foundation (see also above).
In comparison, I found the solution applied at the Illinois Holocaust Museum
more effective, where selected videos of survivor testimonies were woven piecemeal into the narrative of the exhibition at the points where they were most relevant. That way they genuinely enhanced this narrative rather than overwhelming visitors with amassed choices afterwards at the end of the exhibition.
All in all, despite its slight shortcomings (being a bit haphazard in places and making its narrative dependent on a sometimes ill-balanced audio guide) I still preferred the Holocaust Museum LA (then still called LAMOTH) over the MOT
, which I found a bit too didactic and theatrical. On balance, however, neither can really compete with the larger USHMM
or its equivalent
Finally, it should be added that just behind the back door of the museum, you can find an older Holocaust memorial monument. This was unveiled in 1992 and consists of black marble stelae listing the names of concentration camps
, death camps
and countries invaded by Nazi Germany
. Behind the monument is a wall of names and a children's memorial, modelled in part on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
. As is customary there, people can leave little messages on rolled up pieces of paper to stick inside the gaps here.
in, or rather, underneath Pan Pacific Park in the La Brea district in West Hollywood, Los Angeles
, California, USA
. The museum is found in the north-western corner of the park. The address is: 100 South The Grove Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Access and costs: easiest by car, otherwise trickier; free
To get to the museum you ideally need a car (like for almost everything in L.A.). Beverly Boulevard provides the best access from central L.A.
; the museum has its own underground secure parking (free) – you have to use the intercom at the gate to gain access and security may check your car boot and ID. If the museum parking is full, there's additional parking at Pan Pacific Park's own parking lot at 7600 Beverly Blvd.
In case you need to take public transport: the nearest bus stop is at Beverly Blvd/Curson Ave a short walk north of the museum (line 14).
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Friday when the museum closes at 2 p.m., and remains closed altogether on certain Jewish holidays as well as on Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's Day.
Time required: between one and two hours, possibly a lot longer if you want to listen to many of the survivor testimonies. If you're parked at the museum's own underground lot, then three hours is the maximum visiting time (or your car may get towed away)!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously, L.A.
's other museum on the same and similar topics would make a most natural combination: the Museum of Tolerance
. I did both museums within the same day (plus another one), which was a bit much, frankly speaking. It might be better to do the two museums on separate days to make the experience more digestible.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Los Angeles and USA
- LAMOTH 1 - exhibition
- LAMOTH 2 - indication of a deportation train
- LAMOTH 3 - artefact
- LAMOTH 4 - glasses from Auschwitz
- LAMOTH 5a - model of Sobibor
- LAMOTH 5b - death camp model
- LAMOTH 6 - explained by Thomas Blatt himself
- LAMOTH 7 - resistance and help
- LAMOTH 8 - survivors
- LAMOTH 9 - monuments outside