Holocaust Museum Exhibit Spotlights Suffering in Darfur

November 24, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: This week in Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is sending the public a message about Darfur — even the public that doesn’t visit the museum — by projecting pictures of civilian suffering in Sudan onto its building’s exterior. I spoke with museum director Sara Bloomfield.

Well, here we are in this museum so closely identified in the public’s mind with the mass murder of Jews and others during World War II. Why are you taking up the cause of Darfur?

SARA BLOOMFIELD, Director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: We were conceived, not just as a museum, but as something very unique: a living memorial. This was Elie Wiesel’s idea for this museum, that we would teach, not just the history of the Holocaust, but the lessons of the Holocaust.

Those are lessons about the fragility of freedom, about the important of the dignity of the individual, and about the ongoing need to address the issues of hate, of anti-Semitism, of genocide. So this was part of our conception from the beginning.

And we feel that the most powerful way to pay tribute to the 6 million Jews and the millions of others murdered by the Nazis is to try to prevent future genocides and to do so in their name. That is the power of the memorial.

Attempts to educate through images

RAY SUAREZ: So it's consistent with what you call the mission of the museum, but what about the decision to turn the museum, in effect, into a billboard, making an exhibit on the outside of your building?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: This is an extreme situation. And one of the things we keep asking ourselves is, "What could have been different in 1941 and '42?" I mean, the U.S. government knew about the plans to murder the Jews of Europe and yet did nothing.

We are trying to look at history, take lessons from history, and make it different this time. So in this extreme situation, we wanted to make an extreme statement, and that was by projecting these very powerful images of this horrible tragedy out for the public, where people can't look away, but have to confront it, and to do so against the backdrop of, if you will, the moral stature and authority of this institution.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the most heartrending photographs I've ever seen have come out of the reporting of Darfur. When you had to make some decisions about what to put on the outside of this building, how did you make those decisions of what to show the public about what's going on in Africa?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: We looked at those photographs -- now, something we're very sensitive at the museum is we want to make sure that we are educating people and compelling them to action, but also being respectful of the victims whose lives and, in this case, terrible tragic deaths we are portraying. One of our other concerns is also to remind people that this happened to individuals.

The public's response

RAY SUAREZ: That suffering isn't going on in secret though. I mean, if you've watched the evening news over the past couple of years, if you've picked up a newspaper, and now with celebrities involved, even if you've read People magazine you know what's going on in Darfur. Why do you think Americans have yet to become inflamed over this issue?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: The question is not just the publicity, the attention, the shocking images. I worry that people are too used to some of these images. So what we're trying to do at the museum is a combination, if you will, of education, of a word that I think is sort of overused, but empowerment, teaching people that individuals can make a difference, and, of course, the sense of this stimulus to act with these images, which we hope are powerful and compelling.

RAY SUAREZ: The projection of these images on the outside of the building will soon come to an end, but has the museum made a policy decision to stay involved in Darfur?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, it's core to our mission. If we are concerned about preventing and addressing current and future genocides -- which we are -- we will stay on this issue as long as we have to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Darfur images will continue to be shown on the walls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington through midnight this Sunday.