It wasn’t long after Susan L. Abrams joined the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center that she realized an increasing need to preserve survivors’ stories for future generations. “Not only at our museum, but globally there was so much more that needed to be done to tell survivors’ stories,” says Abrams, who began her role as CEO of the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world in 2014.
“We evaluate our students’ visits,” says Abrams, citing the 60,000 students and educators who visit the Museum each year (the museum welcomes more than 150,000 visitors annually), “and pedagogical studies have shown that world-class exhibitions, wonderful history books, [and] incredible documentaries are powerful, but there is absolutely no substitute for developing empathy and understanding of our common humanity than what comes from face-to-face, personal interaction.”
With her colleagues and board of directors, Abrams began to strategize how to better connect survivors with visitors. Now, more than three years later, the Museum is ready to share that strategy in what is the Museum’s most ambitious undertaking yet: the Take a Stand Center, a 4,000-square-foot permanent exhibition that has been designed to not only educate visitors on the danger of hatred, prejudice, and indifference, but also inspire them to recognize the power of their voices and choices and ultimately motivate them to advocate for social justice.
At the heart of the Take a Stand Center is the Abe & Ida Cooper Survivor Stories Experience, which unfolds in a 66-seat custom-built holographic theater. Using interactive, three-dimensional technology developed by the USC Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony program, the Survivor Stories Experience allows Holocaust survivors to share their deeply-moving personal accounts and also respond to questions from the audience through holographic recordings and voice-recognition technology, creating a one-on-one discussion with visitors.
“I was amazed by the technology,” says Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center President Emeritus Samuel R. Harris, who is among the seven Chicago-area survivors participating in the Survivor Stories Experience. “During filming, I was surrounded by hundreds of lights and cameras and asked thousands of questions. They don’t tell you the questions they will be asking beforehand, so my answers and emotions are authentic. I felt honored and privileged to participate and be a voice not only for other Holocaust survivors, but also for those who perished.”
The Museum is notably the first in the world to use the USC Shoah Foundation’s technology—an exciting, if not humbling, achievement. “It’s absolutely a game-changer,” Abrams says. “It gives me chills to think that our survivor population is able to share their experiences in such a vivid and meaningful way.”
Following the Survivor Stories Experience, visitors of the Take a Stand Center are led into the Goodman Upstander Gallery. Here, they can embark on an interactive exploration of 40 “upstanders” (those who, unlike bystanders, recognize the power of their voice) ranging from historical heroes such as Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony and Harvey Milk to contemporary luminaries including Theaster Gates, Billie Jean King, and Malala Yousafzai. “We hope that our visitors, no matter their passions, will be inspired to want to make a difference,” says Abrams. “We know, however, that some think, I’m just one person. They’re knowledgeable and they’re inspired, but they’re still not sure how they can make a difference themselves.”
For that reason, Abrams believes the Take a Stand Center’s third gallery—the Take a Stand Lab—is key. “We put the tools for change into our visitors’ hands, and we teach how to advocate, how to spread the word, how to give of themselves financially through micro-loans, how to found or join an organization…” She continues, “We also provide examples of individuals and organizations that have taken important actions—some large, some small—that really make a difference in our world today.”
And, as Abrams observes, the issues and lessons presented throughout the Take a Stand Center are more critical than ever. “It was clear to all involved in this project the importance of sharing the history of the Holocaust in this incredibly personal way for generations to come, and we were excited about the notion of linking the history to our world today,” she says, “but I don’t think any of us could have perceived quite how timely it would be to stand up and speak out and express opinions.”
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is located at 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, 847-967-4800, ilholocaustmuseum.org.