Lessons Learned from Memorial Museums and Sites of Conscience:

A Study of Best Practices and Guiding Principles

Sarah A. Ogilvie

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Smithsonian Institution Fellow in Museum Practices 2005


For my fellowship research I initially proposed a project to distill a set of principles and best practices from the work of memorial museums and sites of conscience. After consulting with Smithsonian staff, I broadened my focus to ask a set of larger questions:

To carry out this investigation, I visited seven sites in the United States and one in Austria . I conducted in-depth interviews with staff, collected print materials, and observed programs, exhibitions, and technology offerings. In a number of instances I also interviewed founding staff and lay leaders who were no longer working at the sites.

The institutions I visited were Manzanar National Historic Site (Owens Valley, CA), the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA), the National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, TN), Central High School National Historic Site (Little Rock, AR), The Sixth Floor Museum (Dallas, TX), Oklahoma City National Memorial (Oklahoma City, OK), the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (New York, New York) and the Education and Memorial Center Hartheim (Altoven, Austria). Two of these – Manzanar and Central High School* -- are run by the National Park Service (NPS) and two – Oklahoma City National Memorial and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum -- are Park Service affiliates. In addition to research connected to these sites I also conducted interviews with National Museum of American History curators and management staff responsible for two special exhibitions: September 11: Bearing Witness to History and Whatever Happened to Polio? Finally, I collected publicly available information on some two dozen other institutions that define themselves as memorial museums or sites of conscience and from this created a set of institutional profiles.

I. Who are these institutions for and whose voices are heard?

These institutions are by no means static and thus the answer to this question is always somewhat in flux. However, I was nevertheless able to able to identify some common factors that shape audience/constituency focus and openness to representing differing perspectives.
The diversity and experience of the individuals and groups that drive the interpretive process

II. What are the social goals of memorial museums and sites of conscience and their strategies for achieving them?

I found that the mission statements of the sites I studied did not always overtly reference their social goals; however, they were readily available on Web sites and printed materials. Some examples of social goals articulated by memorial museums and sites of conscience include:

I found a variety of approaches are used to meet these social goals. One involves dedicating a portion of the institution's activities and resources to a “living memorial” that seeks to effect change in the present. For example, Oklahoma City National Memorial's Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism is devoted to combating terrorism by improving the effectiveness of first responders through training and the development and dissemination of best practices. A second example is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 's Committee on Conscience which conducts public education and specialized training programs to combat contemporary threats of genocide.

Another approach many institutions use is to craft exhibitions and programs to raise questions and encourage action in response to contemporary challenges. For example, Manzanar National Historic Site provocatively asks its visitors to consider whether circumstances following the attack on Pearl Harbor justified the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and invites reflection on similarities and differences in America 's responses to 9/11. The National Civil Rights Museum envisions a scholar in residence program to serve as a platform for bringing scholarship about the lessons of the Civil Rights movement to a larger audience. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum uses its collection and stories of the individuals who lived in its tenement building to create programs and resources that provide support to new immigrants in New York City neighborhoods today.

III. What do they collect?

As institutions about events and ideas, some of the sites – particularly the more established ones - I studied did not initially emphasize collecting beyond what was needed to create their permanent exhibition. This is true of The Sixth Floor Museum and The National Civil Rights Museum. The National Civil Rights Museum borrowed most of the artifacts in its permanent exhibition from the Tennessee State Museum and initially collected mostly those materials that individuals brought to them. The Sixth Floor Museum also did not have an active collecting program in its early years. Both of these institutions have begun acquisitions efforts in more recent years. The NCRM plans to focus on acquiring photographs and oral testimony; The Sixth Floor Museum is also collecting oral testimony as well as film and photographs.

In contrast, some of the newer sites see broad collecting as central to their mission and a means for ensuring both relevance and opportunity for promoting dialogue among the constituencies and audiences they serve. The Park Service staff of Central High School National Site are collecting broadly in preparation for the new visitors center that is planned for 2007 to coincide with the 50 th anniversary of the Little Rock crisis. Staff are interviewing individuals with as many different perspectives on the event as possible: National Guardsman, white segregationists, former high school students, parents, politicians, etc.

IV. What guidelines do they follow in interpreting emotionally and often politically charged content?

The events and eras represented in the institutions I studied vary significantly. While there was no common set of guidelines mentioned by staff, those who work in museums with an overt memorial function often referred to the notion that could be summarized by the phrase “less is more.” In other words, when interpreting violent, painful events, straightforward, neutral presentation of facts was felt to be the most effective way to both be respectful of those directly affected and to engage the public in considering the significance of the event. All the institutions I studied emphasized the value – and the difficulty – of soliciting broad public input and dialogue as part of the shaping of their exhibitions and programs on the most difficult issues. Real leadership is required to embrace this input without collapsing decision making into the hands of any one group or constituency.

In conclusion, I began my fellowship project expecting to be able to distill a set of best practices and principles from two and a half decades of experience on the part of memorial museums and sites of conscience. What I found is that this particular sector of the museum field is in a state of flux - all of the sites I studied are actively experimenting with new techniques and practices to fulfill their social goals. The results of these innovations thus may have much to offer to the field at large as museums struggle to become more relevant to their communities and the world at large in the new century.

*Although currently a NPS site, Central High School was developed and initially operated by the private, non-profit Central High Inc.