Evil at the push of a button: You are led along darkened corridors in which voices hiss 'Jew' and 'Fag', to a room that looks like a gas-chamber with television sets . . . Adrian Dannatt visits a controversial and startling new museum in Los Angeles

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The Independent Culture
The Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance might well sound like a particularly bitter Woody Allen sketch at the expense of those Hollywood pretensions he most despises: a dollars 50m 'learning experience centre' dedicated to the Holocaust. A place where you press a button and a stereotype Jewish puppet will pop up and start speaking with a thick Yiddish accent. A place where you touch a box marked 'Jew' on the computer screen to call up more information and you almost expect a 3-D hologram Jewish momma to materialise in a cloud of hot chicken soup.

It would be easy to be equally cynical about the showbiz gloss of the whole proceedings - Steven Spielberg's half-million-dollar donation and the large contributions of other Hollywood players, many of whom, it is often pointed out with a glee bordering on anti-Semitism, are, yes, Jewish themselves. That can't be said for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a major donor whose notably Aryan background came in for some scrutiny as a result of his pledge. Nor is the irony easily lost of building a temple to tolerance in Los Angeles, a city that has suffered notoriously from its own racial conflicts.

But although it is so eminently ripe a target for parody, this new museum is a vital stage not only in the development of cultural management, but also in the development of ideas on how to deal with history, memory and, specifically, hatred - how to display an emotion rather than a series of objects. The idea of the museum, which opened last week with typical LA razzmatazz, is not to laboriously run through the history of the Holocaust, but to display and debate the attitudes that led to it.

The museum is run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Wiesenthal is often, wrongly, associated with the obsessive pursuit of the past; but that is not what the museum is about. Rather, it is based around his belief that it is essential for future generations to remember what took place - not to fetishise it as the single tragedy of our century, but to ensure that something similar cannot take place again. Hence the emphasis on education and school groups, a laudable bias that results in some of the more embarrassing 'learning aids' on display. The Museum of Tolerance is unique not only as the first centre devoted to the display of human nature rather than its artefacts (unless one counts the Sex Museum in Amsterdam) but also for being the most technologically advanced institution of its kind. Indeed the vast donations of equipment by companies such as Sony and Apple make it an experimental prototype for every educational establishment.

The brand new eight-storey building is suitably dignified from without, but tends to a slightly queasy James Stirling pastiche pink and green within. The separate sections are carefully segued, like any good movie scenario. It begins with the most bizarre element, the only 'Concept' to make you wince like a seasoned producer. The 'Tolerancenter' begins with a Host Provocateur, a 10ft video-screen personality whose character becomes increasingly obnoxious. He demands we step through one of two marked doors, the left ablaze in red neon with 'Prejudice', the other labelled in green 'Unprejudiced'; the latter is firmly locked. Within are a whole battery of increasingly dubious gimmicks to make you aware of what a totally intolerant brute you really are. There is a dark corridor in which voices hiss 'Nigger', 'Jew', 'Bitch', 'Fag', like a limp rap record without the rhythm. 'The Other America' is a light-up map pinpointing over 250 racist hate groups across the continent. Perhaps the most effective and provocative of these exhibits is an inter-active video replay of the LA riots, which varies according to your age, gender and race.

When your intolerance has been fully exposed (especially your intolerance for flashy and meaningless graphics), a pair of imposing doors springs open and you enter the 'History of the Holocaust'. Each visitor takes a plastic card with a passport photo and the name of a child; at intervals along the tour you punch in the card to discover find what is happening so far to little Lia Borak or Sam Hiller. What is happening generally becomes progressively more unpleasant, until at the end you receive a print-out history of your assigned infant, including the date of disappearance. It's a high-tech version of 'Adopt an African Child', linking you to an individual rather than statistical destiny.

Inexorably, 'The History of the Holocaust' leads you forward through a series of dark rooms that build a sense of claustrophobia, the panic of being contained in history: it is a masterpiece of design psychology. Finally, you arrive at two doors, one marked 'Able Bodied', the other 'Women and Children'; both of which lead into the same concrete room - a gas-chamber, with television screens taking the place of showers. Here visitors sit on benches beneath the taped reminiscences of the few survivors, and, when I was there, weep. It is pointless to say that you feel in any way exploited; that is the explicit intention of the process.

The penultimate part of the museum is the most traditional, and the most painful: a display of objects from the death camps, including children's uniforms and instruments of medical experimentation, an emetic combination. Here are also abused pages of the Torah, holy texts burnt or used as shoe insteps, a telling contrast to the museum's conclusion, the 'Multimedia Learning Center'. At 30 computer work-stations, touch- sensitive screens lead you through every conceivable aspect of the Second World War or anti- Semitism. There are millions of archive photographs easily called up, videos that can be blown up to full screen or freeze-framed, every tiny piece of information instantly available. This seems like the ultimate victory of the 'People of the Book' - no more books, true, but countless words and images, the very latest technology in the service of education and elucidation, a library beyond the imagination of the most ambitious rabbinical scholar. Next door are the torn shreds of carefully inked Torahs; here are the same words blinking on the most sophisticated video display yet available.

There is, of course, something inherently kitsch in the idea of a touch-sensitive palace of interactive entertainment built around the Holocaust; but there is also no doubt of the need for so grand an educational project, and no doubt that by broadening its base to cover every form of hatred the Museum of Tolerance has set a worthy, if flashy, precedent.

(Photographs omitted)