St. Louis Holocaust Museum plans major expansion

An artist’s rendering of the interior of the renovated and expanded Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

On Monday, officials at the 25-year-old Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC) announced plans to triple the size of the museum, located on the I.E. Millstone campus at the northwest corner of Lindbergh Boulevard and Schuetz Road. 

The expanded museum will have its own dedicated entrance and feature a much larger exhibit space to help enhance its permanent collection of more than 12,000 artifacts. Other additions will include a flexible multipurpose room that can accommodate up to 250 people, an expanded learning center, two classrooms, a library and reading room, archival space, a memorial for the Jewish War Veterans and a 3,000-square-foot area for rotating exhibits. 

Groundbreaking on the two-story, $18 million museum expansion and endowment project is expected to begin in late May and be completed by the end of 2021.

“We started fundraising for this project 18 months ago and have had a lot of support from the St. Louis Jewish community,” said Don Hannon, chief operating officer at Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The HMLC is a department of Federation.

“A lot of the donors so far have been people we know and have supported the museum over the years,” Hannon added. “But over 90 percent of visitors to the museum are not Jewish, so it’s really a community resource. We’re ready to take this to the entire St. Louis community now so we can continue to raise money.”

The museum gets 30,000 visitors a year, the majority of which are school groups. It is one of 22 Holocaust museums nationwide. 

The announcement at Federation’s Kaplan Feldman Complex, where the museum is located, coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was attended by more than 150 people, including Holocaust survivors, religious leaders and local public officials, including U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Toward the end of the program, six local survivors lit candles while Rabbi Tracy Nathan spoke about each one.

“This (new) museum is important to keep telling the stories of the Holocaust,” said Mendel Rosenberg, who survived concentrations camps in Poland and southern Germany. The Nazis killed his father and brother. He and his mother barely made it out alive. Even at age 91, he continues to speak at the Holocaust museum and share his story with visitors there.

Renderings of the museum expansion and redesign were also presented on Monday. The project is being directed by Gallagher and Associates, an international museum experience planning and design firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and Singapore. The company’s projects have included the National World War II Museum in New Orleans; the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie; the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta; and our city’s National Blues Museum and Soldier Memorial Military Museum.

Before the announcement, Hannon and Sandra Harris, executive director of the Holocaust Museum, sat down with the Light to explain details of the expansion. So far, the nonprofit has raised $14 million, but the goal is $18 million: $15 million for the expansion and $3 million for an endowment fund “to make sure we have a sustainability plan,” Hannon said.

Earlier this month, the museum received a $750,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). According to the NEH, this grant is one of its largest for a Holocaust-related project and one of fewer than 10 grants of this magnitude in Missouri. 

The grant award requires a four-to-one match, which means that the Holocaust museum must come up with $3 million. Hannon said he wasn’t sure whether any of the money already raised could be used toward that $3 million.

“The NEH grant gives us great motivation to keep moving this project forward,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do. We’re going to continue to raise money. We’re in the process of working through the details of the grant.”

The organization has not yet released the name of the new museum. Currently, its entire name is the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Memory of Gloria M. Goldstein. Hannon said naming rights to a “significant” number of the physical spaces inside the new building have been purchased, as well as the name of the museum, though it will not be announced until closer to groundbreaking.

“We have a donor who has been very generous, but we cannot name that (donor) yet,” Hannon said. “I can tell you that the name Holocaust Museum and Learning Center will still be part of the new name, and I also can say there are still plenty of opportunities for naming rights left.” 

What triple its size looks like

The new museum will not only encompass the current HMLC space, but also take over the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. It will have its own entrance and parking lot facing Lindbergh Boulevard and be built out on the site that once housed the Strike ‘N Spare Lanes bowling alley. Federation is in the process of purchasing that land from the Jewish Community Center.

“The museum has 12,000 square feet now, and we will be going up to 35,000 square feet,” Hannon said. “It will be two levels. The upper level will be at the same level as the current museum, and then there will be a lower level, too.”

Harris noted that the new museum will be much more visible and accessible. The permanent exhibit will be redone, and many of the museum’s themes, such as anti-Semitism, bias and hate, will be explored more deeply through rotating exhibits.

“We will still be teaching the history of the Holocaust and what happened around the world and the various roles people had and the factors that led up to it,” she said. “But it will be done in a more flexible way.

“Right now, we’re very chronological. But in the new design, we will be more thematic so you don’t have to follow a certain path. It will give our docents much more flexibility.” 

Focus on St. Louis survivors

In his remarks on Monday, Bud Rosenbaum, chair of the Holocaust Museum Executive Committee, talked about how 350 survivors settled in St. Louis during and after the Holocaust and worked tirelessly to open the HMLC in 1995. Today, roughly 60 survivors remain in the area.

“As fewer of our Holocaust survivors remain available to tell their story personally, it is our collective vision to preserve their stories and help the next generation understand what can and indeed did happen, even in a democracy,” he said. “It is our mission that every generation realizes that freedom is a fragile thing and is something to be carefully protected.”

Harris said the new museum will continue its focus on St. Louis survivors of the Holocaust. “We’re looking at ways to insert the St. Louis piece into almost any theme, so you will continue to see that represented,” she said.

The new museum will take advantage of technological advancements over the past 25 years, which Harris said will make it feel more contemporary.

“We have a lot of the oral histories of the survivors that are just audio. We also have video footage of them. So we will be digitizing and incorporating that. You will be able to see and interact with many more things. Even with photographs, it won’t be static. So it will really be much more what museumgoers expect today,” Harris said.

Once groundbreaking begins, the museum will shut down. However, Harris said museum staff will continue their outreach to schools and also expand into new areas. Last year, more than 350 schools visited.

“Almost every classroom now is tied in with technology, so if we can’t get a speaker from here to them, we will find new ways to engage,” Harris said, adding that more staff will be hired because of the expansion. She also said that she plans to keep all of the museum’s docents involved.

“The reason the museum has been so successful in the 25 years it has operated is because of those 150 passionate volunteers,” Hannon said. “I know Sandra is committed to keep them involved. Neither of us could envision the museum without them.”

Hannon also said that security at the new museum will be “very tight out of necessity.”

“There will be a tighter security process than we have for access at any other institution on campus, but one that is respectful,” he said. “We want people to feel safe in the space and that is of primary importance to us.”

What hasn’t been decided is whether admission to the new museum will remain free.

“We have a strong commitment to students to be able to come here without any barriers,” Harris said. “We supply transportation for high-need students right now and don’t charge them for our tours. But in the long-term model, we will need donors to sponsor that and the help of corporations.”

Also unclear is whether the new Holocaust museum will continue to be a department of Federation or its own entity.

“We’re in the process of looking at that,” Hannon said. “Our ultimate goal is to create an entity that is independent and can thrive. Whatever model it takes to do that is what we will try to move forward with.”