For a deep understanding of the Holocaust – its victims, perpetrators and bystanders – this harrowing United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a must-see.
Located among national monuments to freedom on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the living memorial to the Holocaust aims to inspire citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.
Since its dedication in 1993, it has worked to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
Visitors can visit several exhibitions, including the main, permanent one and a gentler installation recommended for children aged eight and over.
History of the museum
The museum was founded as the US’s national institution for the documentation, study and interpretation of Holocaust history. It serves as a memorial to the millions of people murdered during the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of Jews, primarily, but also Roma, people with disabilities and Poles, by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.
The museum was chartered by a unanimous Act of Congress in 1980 after the President’s Commission on the Holocaust submitted its recommendations for Holocaust remembrance and education in the US. The groundbreaking ceremony for the building on the National Mall took place in 1985, and President Ronald Reagan marked the laying of the museum cornerstone in 1988, saying, "We must make sure that [...] all humankind stares this evil in the face."
President Bill Clinton dedicated the museum on April 22, 1993, and it has now welcomed more than 40 million visitors, including 99 heads of state and more than ten million school-age children.
What to do at the museum
The main exhibit, The Holocaust, is a permanent self-guided exhibition spanning three floors of the museum. It offers a chronological narrative of the Holocaust through historical artifacts, photographs and film footage. Throughout the exhibition, visitors will also encounter personal objects and the eyewitness testimonies of individual survivors.
You will be given the identity card of a single Holocaust victim, whose story is revealed as you take a winding route into a hellish past marked by ghettos, rail cars and death camps. It also shows the flip side of human nature, documenting the risks many citizens took to help the persecuted. Allow one to three hours to take the exhibition in, and bear in mind that there are several other fascinating exhibitions on at the museum at all times.
If you have children aged eight and over, a gentler installation – Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story – is located on the 1st floor and presents the history of the Holocaust through the experience of one child.
Tickets and other practicalities
The museum is located on the National Mall, just south of Independence Avenue SW between 14th Street and Raoul Wallenberg Place (15th Street) in Washington, DC. The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian on the orange, blue and silver lines, located one block east of the museum. It does not have a public parking facility, but there is a paid parking garage located across the street on D Street SW between 13th and 14th Streets, and some metered parking along Independence Avenue.
Admission tickets for the museum are free and can be reserved online in advance via the museum’s website for a $1 surcharge. For those looking for a bite to eat, the Museum Café is located in the Ross Administrative Center.
The museum is open every day apart from Yom Kippur and Christmas, and its website is available in 16 languages.
Accessibility at the museum
The National Park Service has designated approximately ten accessible parking spaces for people with disabilities at and around the Washington Monument, along Independence Avenue west of 14th Street, and at the Tidal Basin parking lot. Visitors may be dropped off on the 14th Street side of the museum for easier access by car.
The building is fully accessible to visitors who use mobility assistive devices. Elevators have been installed to provide access all floors, and ramps are available where there is a change in floor height. Wheelchairs are provided as needed from the coat check on the main floor of the museum, and accessible restrooms are located on every floor of the Permanent Exhibition and on the museum’s lower level.
The museum offers guided highlights tours for visitors who are blind or sight-impaired and their guests, but must be requested in advance. They are led by trained staff or volunteer docents and include visual description and touchable objects.
Visitors to the Permanent Exhibition receive an ID card showcasing the life history of a person who lived during the Holocaust. Large print and Braille ID cards are available from the information desk on the museum’s main floor. An audio-descriptive tour of the Hall of Witness and Hall of Remembrance is available, and audio files can be downloaded here.
Multimedia in exhibition spaces is captioned for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing, and most multimedia that uses audio is equipped with T-coil technology. All First Person programs are open-captioned in real time, and recorded programs are available online with captions. Visitors to programs in the museum’s auditoriums may request assistive-listening devices.
The museum’s accessibility guide can be downloaded here.