Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Museum of Tolerance visit in L.A.

When I first began writing the proposal for our museum project at Ahavath Scholom, I researched out other venues and museums who were doing similar things. I wanted to find a model to look up to, possibly emulate, and use as a resource. No sense in recreating the wheel, right? Well, I ran across a website for the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) in Los Angeles, CA. When I read their mission statement and learned more about their educational programs, I began to think that the MOT was a good match to be one of the models for the Ahavath Scholom project.

Since I am in California right now, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the MOT and see their mission at work with my own eyes. Sadly, the website and mission had lead me astray as what I found behind the museum's doors was very different in real life. We waited for a few minutes to be lead quickly down a spiral ramp. This spiral ramp was flanked with photos of Holocaust survivors and short biographies of the individuals. I was fascinated by these photos but the guide gave us no time to sit and look at the faces- I wanted to look into their eyes- we had to move on. At the bottom of the ramp, the guide gave us a 5-minute introduction to what we would be seeing. She did NOT tell us, that what we would be seeing would be close to a 2-hour narrative. Once we entered, we were confronted with a winding labyrinth of dioramas. When one diorama would go dim, the next would light up, with a constant voice heard overhead barking at us. The narrative and the dioramas led us through the few years prior to WWII, the years during the War, and a year or so after the War ended. I found myself drifting off, thinking about how I would maximize the space, wondering what the museum staff was thinking, and wishing it would all be over so I could make my way out of this didactic maze. All of these thoughts from someone like me- a PhD student in History no less! I can only imagine what the kids in the group were thinking.

After the 2 hour narrative craziness, we were spit out into yet another narrative in a 1950s themed diner. This narrative focused on the stereotypes Americans have about police. The audience was shown a short video about a domestic dispute, and then asked to side with either the woman in the case who lost her abusive husband to the gun shots of the police who tried to save her, or the policeman who pulled the trigger. This whole time I found myself wondering, what in the world does this have to do with tolerance? Even though we had had our fill of narrative by this point, we fell into yet another quick sand, narrative-driven, exhibit. This one was called the Millenium Theater (or something). Here, we were shown very scary footage about terrorist attacks, Arabs with guns, scenes from 9/11, and frightening news headlines. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth and thought to myself- how does this help me think positively about ethnic and cultural diversity?

The sad answer to both of my questions is, "It doesn't." On a more positive note, it is even more obvious that our museum cannot be one that talks TO the visitor- it must be one that relies ON the visitor. Instead of the visitor filling in the blanks, in our museum, the visitor creates the sentence themself! Rather than perpetuating stereotypes and bolstering fear, our museum will help visitors build a toolset to communicate with and appreciate people who are different then they are. After visiting the MOT, one of the places that I thought would be a model for Ahavath Scholom, it has become obvious that Ligonier will truly have a unique place- one that celebrates diversity to its fullest.  

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