Holocaust Museum expands its mission to include Hagy Belzberg

When the Holocaust Museum LA (then known as the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust) took permanent residence in Pan Pacific Park in 2010, the ultimate goal was to attract an estimated 15,000 visitors each year. This goal was not only achieved in the first year, it was exceeded. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, the museum attracted more than 65,000 people each year, well beyond its original plans.

Now even more visitors are to be attracted: 500,000 per year until 2030. “We take a lot of time,” says museum director Beth Kean. “We hope to get to 150,000 in the next few years. … We have a plan for the trajectory to get us there. “

To this end, the museum is planning an expansion that will almost double its floor space from 28,000 square meters to 50,000 square meters. The expansion includes a new 2,500 square meter gallery for temporary exhibitions, a 200-seat theater for film screenings and panel discussions, and two classrooms. The extension is designed by Hagy Belzberg, director of LA-based Belzberg Architects, who designed the museum’s current home.

“We are not a huge museum,” says Belzberg, who is also a member of the museum’s board of directors. “If you want to look at something while there is a busload of children there, it is difficult to establish an intimate relationship with the object.”

The expansion helps to avoid bottlenecks. It will also add a new, more prominent building to a museum that currently has a very quiet presence in the Los Angeles countryside.

Today’s building, which is partially underground, has a sloping green roof and looks like an extension of the hilly park landscape that surrounds it. The new plan will change that profile by adding a rooftop pavilion that will house a rail freight car near the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland.

Visible from the street and Pan Pacific Park, the museum that will illuminate the new pavilion at night will appear much more prominent.

“You can picnic in the park and look up and it’s there,” says Belzberg. “It’s this esoteric statement about never forgetting.”

A new pavilion will house a freight wagon found outside the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland and will make the museum in Pan Pacific Park better known.

(Holocaust Museum LA)

The museum was founded in 1961 by a group of Holocaust survivors and in its early years moved between several rented locations on Wilshire Boulevard, including an office building. In 2003, the search for permanent home resulted in a 50-year land lease for $ 1 a year for urban land in Pan Pacific Park. Seven years later, the museum opened its current 28,000-square-foot structure south of the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Grove Drive.

It wasn’t an easy site to work with. Immediately to the north is a post office. Across Grove Drive to the west are a multitude of parking garage entrances for an apartment complex and the Grove Shopping Center (which appears to be reserving the worst urban elements of the complex for the street named after it).

Belzberg responded with a design that incorporated the museum into the landscape. Visitors arrive via a zig-zag path that leads down into the building. As you dig deeper into the building and deeper into the violent history of the Holocaust, the daylight recedes. The curved interior of the museum is made with a kind of shotcrete (shotcrete), which gives the interior a correspondingly gloomy atmosphere.

“When you reach the darkest chapter in history, you get to the darkest part of the building,” says Belzberg. “There is no such thing as natural sunlight.”

When the building opened, Christopher Hawthorne, the Times architecture critic at the time, described it as “an elegant, energy-efficient and economical building whose attitude towards the city and history is strangely deferential.”

Its low profile has created a contemplative space, but also one that can get a little lost in a rather inhospitable street.

“One of our goals with the expansion is to illuminate the building,” says Kean. “We want to get people’s attention. We want it to be a striking museum and iconic landmark. We don’t want it to be hard to find. “

Part of this will be provided by the elevated freight car pavilion, which will be attached to the existing building.

Likewise, a building that is being erected in the south on a plot of land that encloses an existing outdoor amphitheater and is currently included in the lease between the museum and the park. This structure will add the theater, classroom, and additional gallery space – as well as space for an interactive installation called Dimensions in Testimony, created by the USC Shoah Foundation, in which a viewer questions about a holographic representation of a Holocaust survivor can put. (The museum is already showing a version of the installation.)

An elderly woman is guided through a Holocaust exhibition.

Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, 97, walks through the museum with Holocaust Museum executive Beth Kean and LA city director Ron Galperin to see Dimensions in Witness in July.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

If the building is a descent into darkness in 2010, the new one, Belzberg says, will be an easier experience – one that speaks for the future and resilience. In between there is a large outside courtyard, which provides a visual break. “There is a functional, but also a conceptual reason,” says the architect. The buildings each refer to the “past and future” of history. The court, he says, marks the present. “We have opened the present.”

Moving the temporary exhibitions to the new building will allow the older one to give more space to its permanent collection, which includes letters, photographs, vintage newspapers, artifacts from Auschwitz, and a 19th-century Torah scroll from the Czech Republic. The extra space also means the museum can better accommodate the numerous school classes that get through.

“Now you can separate them,” says Belzberg. “You can start at the bottom, you can start at the learning pavilion and you can start at the freight car. It’s a much better experience. “

Kean says enlargement is important for other reasons as well.

“This museum was founded by survivors in 1961,” she says. “The survivors are a big part of our museum. They are a big part of our consciousness – and they die. … It is really important to build up a collection of their stories and experiences, and we have to enlighten the world when they are no longer here. “

This also includes linking the experiences of the Holocaust with outbreaks of violence in other communities.

“The Holocaust is not just a Jewish story,” says Kean. “We want to involve other marginalized communities to bring people together to discuss current issues. With a 200-person theater we can do many public programs. “

Of the $ 45 million needed to complete the project, $ 22 million has already been raised through a capital campaign. The lead gift (the amount is not known) came from the Cayton Goldrich family, descendants of the late Jona Goldrich, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, who gave the museum significant support. The museum’s new campus will bear his name.

The groundbreaking should take place next year.

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