The four-decade-old Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) has embarked on a $50-million project that could see it relocate to its own, much larger, space in downtown Montreal.
The MHM has been quietly exploring the feasibility of such an ambitious undertaking over the past year and a half, which it sees as necessary, due to a surge in visitors in recent years and a growing demand for its educational services and other programming, said MHM executive director Alice Herscovitch.
Since its founding in 1979, the MHM (originally the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre) has been located in Federation CJA’s Cummings House. MHM is an affiliated agency of the Federation, which created it with the Montreal survivor community, the third largest in the world.
All indications are that the project will go ahead, Herscovitch said.
The Azrieli Foundation, for whom Holocaust remembrance and education is an important part of its mission, is committed to funding one-third of the construction costs, up to $15 million, said Naomi Azrieli, its chair and CEO.
“We are involved as a partner conceptually,” Azrieli said. “This project builds on our longstanding relationship and is a natural evolution of the way we work together.… We are very excited. This is huge not only for Montreal and Quebec, but for Canada.”
A study that was sponsored by the foundation and conducted by the Toronto-based consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources, looks positively on such a move. Other private donors have since come on board and the three levels of government have also shown interest, said Hercovitch, who said the estimated final price tag could reach $50 million, including the creation of an endowment fund.
The project became public in the latter days of the Quebec election campaign, when MNA David Birnbaum announced that, if the Liberals were re-elected, the government would support the project financially, although no amount was specified.
Herscovitch said contacts were made with the Coalition Avenir Québec before the election and she is confident that the new government will not see this as a partisan issue. The MHM is recognized as a museum by the province and receives funding for its operations.
“We also consulted survivors and other stakeholders in the Jewish community and they are incredibly favourable,” she said.
“The MHM is the only one of its kind in Canada, the only one with a permanent exhibition on the Holocaust and focused uniquely on Holocaust remembrance and human rights education,” said Herscovitch.
The MHM has experienced none of the “Holocaust fatigue” that others in the field are combating, she said.
On the contrary, the number of visitors – predominantly students – has increased dramatically. “We had 18,000 visitors last year. When I started here 11 years ago, it was 9,500,” she said. “There is a thirst for Holocaust education.”
While tremendously gratifying, this growth has been a logistical headache. The museum space (excluding offices) is 5,000 sq. ft., with passageways kept narrow to display as much material as possible.
This means that visits are limited to groups of 15 at a time, she said, which is a problem on days when 200 or 300 people show up.
The Lord Cultural Resources study estimated that the number of annual visitors could reach 55,000-60,000 in a more accessible and visible location, she said, tapping into tourists more than it does now.
Although the museum was expanded in 2003, the space is still only enough to show about 400 artifacts, she said. That’s a small fraction of the over 13,000 in its holdings, consisting mainly of items contributed by local survivors and their descendants.
Ideally, the MHM should have about 25,000 sq. ft. in total, with double the permanent exhibition space, said Herscovitch. At the moment, the MHM can only mount temporary exhibits in the lobby of Cummings House, which is a small area, and valuable items cannot be included because it is a public space, she noted.
The MHM is the only one of its kind in Canada.
– Alice Herscovitch
More space is needed for educational programs, such as teacher training, which is in increasing demand (7,600 were reached last year). These educators come not only from Quebec, but increasingly from Ontario and the northeastern United States, as well. In June, participants from every province, except Prince Edward Island, attended a workshop at the MHM.
In recent years, the MHM has been collaborating with other communities that have experienced genocide and has been raising relevant contemporary human rights and racism issues.
Another advantage would be better working conditions for the staff, who are now spread over three floors. The archivist, for example, works on a table in the basement, Herscovitch said. Being downtown would enable the MHM to be a ready resource to universities, she added.
The most likely option is buying an existing building and renovating it, or possibly taking a long-term lease, she said.
Of course, in addition to the capital expenditures, operating costs would increase greatly. In Cummings House, the MHM pays no rent or utilities.
Herscovitch said the MHM will remain affiliated with the Federation.
“We are physically moving out of the building,” said Herscovitch. “We are not moving out of the Jewish community. We are mission-aligned with Federation CJA and expect to stay so, with more impact.”
Azrieli emphasized that the MHM has a responsibility to the Holocaust survivors for whom the institution was their legacy.
“The preservation of the memory of the Holocaust will always be central to what the MHM does,” said Azrieli. “The genocide of European Jewry was unique and its lessons must be disseminated.”