The New York Times: At the Museum of Tolerance, Holding a Mirror to Visitors’ Biases

LOS ANGELES — “The courage and morality of a society is always on trial, and in crisis it is tested to the limits,” said Liebe Geft, the director of the Museum of Tolerance.

These words have a particular resonance in today’s political culture, a climate for which the museum has been “preprogrammed,” Ms. Geft said.

The museum, which is decidedly apolitical and nonpartisan, uses animated walk-through exhibits, question-focused interactive media and docents trained to lead difficult conversations to bring attention to oppression and injustice worldwide.

“The entire approach here, in the way we train our guides and docents, in the way we introduce skilled and professional facilitators to all of our programs, is to be able to have those difficult discussions,” Ms. Geft said. “To look at those challenges to society, the fears that we have, to acknowledge the struggles — and they’re always there — they are intensified in this climate.”

The space here is not new, but its message and historical content seem particularly apt — both in the United States and abroad — with the decline of “political correctness” and an increase in crimes rooted in racism and xenophobia.

The exhibits integrate Holocaust narratives and other accounts of injustice with present-day stories of prejudice.

The museum is operated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human rights organization whose research focuses on the Holocaust and “hate in a historic and contemporary context,” according to its website.

Part of its mission will involve opening the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Since that city already has Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, that location will focus less on the Holocaust than on the 3,500-year history of the Jewish people, their resilience and their contributions to the world. It will also include the experiential elements featured in the original center.

While the Los Angeles museum is a popular destination for schoolchildren on field trips, the “Tools for Tolerance” classes it offers are a major draw for adults.

These professional development courses — attended by groups that include law enforcement personnel, health care providers, educators and corporate executives — focus on being more inclusive, combating implicit bias and improving community relations. Demand for the programs is high, and the number of people who can take them is limited by the amount of funding the center can raise.

An artist’s rendering of the new center of the Museum of Tolerance that will be built in Jerusalem. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center

An artist’s rendering of the new center of the Museum of Tolerance that will be built in Jerusalem. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center

Ms. Geft said the programs are effective because participants meet, work with and are trained by civil rights champions, Holocaust survivors and resilient people who have thrived despite experiencing refugee crises, human rights violations, hate crimes and more.

Discussion plays a central role in these classes, as it does in the museum proper. There are frequent film screenings that are less about seeing a movie than about fostering debate in the question-and-answer sessions. These exchanges can be filled with vocal disagreement, cheers and boos.

There is also a polling station with a question that changes to reflect the news. Recently, President Trump’s travel ban was the topic. Ms. Geft said the question drew the strongest response she had ever seen.

“Huge, huge majorities,” she said. “It’s never been less than 84 percent, and sometimes 96 percent, saying, ‘No, we don’t support this.’”

Ms. Geft said the museum “is not a kumbaya place where everything goes and it’s ‘hold hands and be happy.’”

“This is a place where we confront the really difficult challenges in life and explore the gray areas in the moral and ethical dimensions of the decisions we have to make,” she said. “Not putting anyone down or discrediting or disrespecting them — it works both ways — but pointing out the importance of creating an inclusive society where every person is respected.”

The museum is starting an initiative to connect as many as 10,000 children in the United States with Syrian children in refugee camps. The program will send thousands of pinwheels to the camps and set up video calls so the children can talk to one another and develop relationships.

“It’s extremely important that these children in these terrible circumstances know that we care about them, that there are other people, even far away, that may not know them personally, that care about them and want to help,” Ms. Geft said.

Exhibits are designed to challenge visitors’ biases by taking them through experiences based on the news, asking questions about the people involved and highlighting how everyone plays a role in discrimination.

The Holocaust portion of the museum has each visitor follow a different child who lived during the period. As the visitor moves through the guided experience, he or she sees various horrors of Nazi Germany, and ultimately learns of the child’s fate.

While most museums encourage visitors to walk around, observe, learn and leave through the gift shop, the Museum of Tolerance is not a collection of artifacts, great works and retail space. Although it has some of those things, it is more of a social laboratory. Visitors may learn as much about themselves as they do about what they see.

Ms. Geft said she asked her son how they could encourage his friends to go to the museum. “He said, ‘In the time it takes to see a movie, come to the museum and change the way you see the world and your role in it,’” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Jarrett Hill