In the late 1980s, when organizers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were searching for Nazi-era artifacts, they sought to tell a story that was industrial in its magnitude and horrifying in its detail. The results, a widely acclaimed permanent exhibition that broke new ground in museum design, may be in jeopardy as the museum deals with demands to return one of its most powerful and haunting objects.
Little known outside the Holocaust Museum is that many of the objects borrowed from Poland almost a quarter-century ago were on a 20-year loan, and over the past few years, those loans have expired. In some cases, the museum has returned objects, renegotiated loans or exchanged existing materials, such as shoes, suitcases and prayer shawls, for equivalent pieces.