The best museums tend to do three things well: give you something you can’t find anywhere else, reach you on more than one plane of consciousness and give you something to ponder after you’ve left.
When the subject matter is the Holocaust, giving visitors something they can’t find anywhere else might seem like a challenge, but it’s one that the new Sanditen/Kaiser Holocaust Center at Tulsa’s Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art meets head-on by showcasing five survivors who resettled in Oklahoma after World War II, as well as stories and artifacts from Oklahoma service members who were liberators of the Nazi camps.
“We wanted to make sure these stories were told from their point of view,” said Mickel Yantz, director of collections and exhibitions at the museum. “Unfortunately, we only have two of them with us anymore, so it’s even more important to keep telling their stories so that they live on into the next generation.”
The designers started with these personal stories, but they didn’t stop there.
“We didn’t want this to be just about something that happened a long time ago on another continent,” Yantz said.
So they made it relevant by including discussion about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears and the desecration of Jewish tombstones in a Tulsa cemetery 20 years ago.
“To have a museum like this in Tulsa is something very special and very unique,” Yantz said. “We really hope this is something that Tulsa can be proud of.”
The museum houses the largest collection of Jewish art in the southwestern United States, but “there really aren’t many Jewish museums in the Midwest,” he said.
Having a Holocaust center here — the closest other ones are in Denver, St. Louis and Dallas — is important because “every story is different and every museum can’t tell every story,” he said.
Although the center’s collection totals about 16,000 artifacts, from tiny stamps to large pieces, only a small number are on display at any one time.
“We designed it to be ever-changing because this is going to be here for decades. This way, we can showcase even more of our collection,” Yantz said.
There was one big issue to resolve, however: how to display Nazi artifacts without glorifying what the Nazis did.
“It was tricky, but I think we did really well,” Yantz said.
Those displays “are on the ground beneath you, which is not a place of respect,” he said, adding that these artifacts also were placed somewhat haphazardly as to further show disdain for the beliefs the items represent.
Although the exhibit’s subject matter is evil and tragic, Yantz said planners were mindful of young visitors.
“We kept this as family friendly as possible,” he said. “We didn’t use some of the most graphic photos in our collection. We wanted it to be educational, but we didn’t want to upset people.
“We also wanted to honor those lives, but we wanted to be respectful,” he said.
Designers also wanted to give visitors something intangible yet powerful to take with them.
“The logo that we created is in Hebrew calligraphy and means ‘repairing the world,’ ” Yantz said. “We want to give people the tools and information to know what happened in the past — not only of the Holocaust — to make sure they know the truth from those people who actually experienced it.
“So not only education, but also the idea of hope — the stories of those people who helped out; those who stood up,” he said. “It’s an important message of standing up because when you don’t, that’s when things like the Holocaust happen.”