For 35 years, the curators and historians of Dallas’s Holocaust Museum worked to find language for unspeakable horrors. Last week, the museum reopened as the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum—a reflection on its widened scope to acknowledge traumas experienced by other groups around the world. Though the museum changed its mission to include a human rights focus three years ago, the space itself was too small to take on new initiatives.
The Dallas museum’s first temporary special exhibition, “Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory,” is an intimate collection of large-scale photographs by Jim Lommasson—who will be speaking at the museum later this week—and handwritten reflections from more than 60 survivors of the Holocaust and violence in Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, and other countries. On view through January 31, 2020, the show’s deeply personal tone helps ground the museum’s debut.
It’s anchored by a three-winged permanent exhibit and a hologram theater that facilitates virtual conversations between onlookers and Holocaust survivor Max Glauben—a tender approach, considering how the number of survivors declines with each year. And as conditions at migrant detention centers along the United States–Mexico border have reportedly worsened, the museum’s expansion as a place to center conversations around human rights feels both timely and thoughtful.
Texas Monthly spoke with Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum since 2013, about the museum’s efforts to inspire concrete action.
Texas Monthly: When you came to the museum, the permanent exhibition dealt with a single day during the Holocaust. The scale has changed immensely.
Mary Pat Higgins: When I started, we had nine employees including me. We are now up to 38, including me. To be able to raise the $84 million that we raised, it required more staff, too. It’s taken all of us to get this done.
TM: What did the research process look like as you considered different approaches to the expansion?
Mary Pat Higgins: A group of board leadership and I traveled throughout Europe … to visit concentration camps and to visit museums, to learn from them. We did that back in 2004. We visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is incredible.
We found world-class partners to bring all this to life. Cortina Productions, who’s our media producer, was the media producer for the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and they worked on the Smithsonian African American Museum and many others.
TM: What did you learn from your travels?
MPH: We saw throughout Europe the use of testimony with ear cans [a small personal speaker visitors can use to listen]. I hadn’t seen that in very many museums in the United States. We knew that we wanted to really personalize our Holocaust exhibition to use the testimony of local survivors. We had 125 survivors who made their homes [in Dallas], and who opened our first museum. And so we wanted to help teach the history through their testimony.
That inspired us to have the small iPad stations. Each of seventeen has four short clips of the Holocaust survivors who had an experience relevant to that part of the exhibition. Instead of an app where you’re on your phone and you might get distracted, we wanted you to pull the ear can up to your ear and listen to their testimony in a personal way.
Our local survivors were one of the first groups to have their testimonies filmed. There was a great program through SMU back in the eighties and nineties to capture their testimony. Then the USC Shoah Foundation [founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994] started after Schindler’s List.
The museum has two incredible Holocaust historians on staff and they have been recording testimony of our survivors even in the last three years, to update testimony that was taken three decades ago. Our staff went through all this testimony to help find the two or three minutes that would be perfect for each particular part of the exhibit.
TM: You’re hoping to reach 100,000 visiting students this year with TEKS-aligned curriculum. Are there any formal ways that you’ll be accountable as a partner to schools, or do districts have to meet particular standards to qualify?
MPH: We actually have formal partnership agreements with nine ISDs, and we are actively working with other school districts to try to formalize partnerships. It’s a very involved process.
Most of the big school districts around Dallas are majority Title I schools where most of those students are at or below the poverty level. Those school districts have very tight budgets and they’re not as likely to have a foundation that could help fund field trips. We have committed in these agreements to ensure that a certain number of their students will be able to visit the museum for free, and we will reimburse them for transportation and get the students to and from the museum.
For example, for DISD, it’s 3,000 students. They have over 70,000 students in sixth to twelfth grade. So we would love to continually increase that number. That’s the next big project for the museum, to continue to raise endowment funds to ensure that we can expand those contracts and offer that kind of assistance and perpetuity to those districts in North Texas.
We have 6,000 students who come from East Texas, thanks to donors who grew up in Tyler and who really want to see those kids come to the museum.
TM: Touch-screens link visitors directly to area nonprofits and advocacy groups that need volunteers, like the Dallas-based Human Rights Initiative of Texas. This portal is the last stop before an exit through a memorial display bathed in light, which feels like a decidedly future-focused call to action.
MPH: The idea for the kiosk emerged in our very first planning meetings for the exhibit. We wanted people to be able to do something concrete when they left our museum. You go through and you learn about this horrific history and these incredible “upstanders” [a word used to honor ordinary people who stand against hate] and you think, “Gosh, what can I do?”
Going forward, we would love to be a convener for other groups doing great work in North Texas regarding promoting human rights. We are not an advocacy organization. So you won’t see us stepping out and actively advocating for certain issues. We’re an educational institution. So our advocacy, if you will, will happen through our programs.