Interactive Show at L.A. Museum Stresses Tolerance

Article excerpt

AT first the name Lillyan Cohn has little meaning beyond a certain portent. Attribute this to the fact that a grainy photo of her as a child and her name appear on a plastic card - the shape of a credit card - given to a visitor in the extraordinary new Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance here.

As you walk through part of the museum, it is "your card" (and therefore your child) to carry through dark passageways, down a re-created 1932 Berlin street with a bookstore selling "Mein Kampf" in the window, into the Warsaw ghetto, and through the iron gates of Auschwitz.

Lillyan Cohn was a 10-year-old Jewish child in Germany when Hitler's horrifying attempt to annihilate all Jews was well underway in war-torn Europe. Hitler sought to depersonalize, stigmatize, and destroy all Jews in the Holocaust, but the Museum of Tolerance never loses sight of the fact that millions of individuals like Lillyan Cohn were affected.

In addition, the museum reaches beyond the Holocaust to remind us that the fight against bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism in the United States is not over.

But can the elusive concept of tolerance, with many definitions like so many personal anthems in the real world, be made universal and vital within the structure of a museum?

Built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a research organization, the $50 million museum courageously alters the traditional, serious museum experience of passing by fixed exhibits in big rooms. To explore the concept of tolerance, and its inverse, the scale here is small and close. Many of the intimate exhibits talk back. You are forced to make decisions, push levers, listen to whispers, and think about the level of bigotry and prejudice that could linger in your own attitudes. Through interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations, dioramas, and architectural re-creations, a two-hour tour is no casual encounter.

In early February, the museum opened a 28,000-square-foot exhibition area with five floors, including a computer learning center, a 324-seat theater, a plaza, and a gift shop. The substance and presentation of exhibits have already been criticized. The New York Times wrote that the emphasis on multimedia to explore such a serious subject is a "vulgarization." The LA Weekly concluded that the museum's "infotainment" approach is geared to the "short attention spans of the MTV generation" and is designed to "jolt and stun."

At the start of the tour, a bank of TV monitors introduces a wise-cracking, white middle-class bigot in a coat and tie. He tells visitors "you look like the right kind of people, if you know what I mean."

After a number of slights and innuendos, he directs people toward two doors, one marked "Prejudiced," and the other marked "Unprejudiced." The door marked unprejudiced is locked, much to his delight. Through the other door is a large, amoeba-shaped room of interactive exhibits, including videos of the Los Angeles riots with accompanying questions to determine your attitudes and record them.

To the left, in a tight, weakly lit hallway, whispered insults come out of the walls. "Hey nigger," says a voice from the left. "Jungle bunny," says another from the right. "Loudmouthed kike!" rasps a voice overhead. …