If there's one museum I catch myself urging people not to go to, it is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Not because everyone shouldn't see it at some point, but because the Holocaust Museum is different from other Washington area attractions. How you visit it is more important than if you have time to visit it, in my opinion. If you want to dash into the Air and Space Museum to catch the WrightFlyer , have at it. But squeezing in the Holocaust is almost profane, and I'd encourage folks to either make time to do it right or plan on visiting it on your next visit to Washington.
But now that I've warned you off, let me give you some pointers on how best to approach your visit. First off, let's focus on the name, somewhat unwieldy that it is. I often get the question, "Why here?" Why, indeed? The Holocaust is not an uniquely American experience, so why build a "United States" museum to it? The report of the Commission that proposed the Museum sums up the answer to that question nicely:
But the second part of the name is perhaps even more important. Note the use of the words "Memorial Museum" in the title. The Commission I quoted above was instigated by President Carter to find a suitable memorial to the Holocaust, not a museum. The President's Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, felt that a static display would not be sufficient to remember what had happened. Even more than a mass killing of people, the Holocaust was attempt to destroy the memory of them. A Memorial Museum would be not just a Memorial to those who died, but a final nail in the coffin of Nazism, which so many Americans died to defeat. By remembering it, and teaching future generations, we serve as a final triumph over the "Final Solution". Again, from the Commission report:
Why do I bring all of this up? Because I encourage people to approach visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum less as a museum and more as a memorial. Plan on spending a some time there and, more importantly, commit to the experience. I'm never a fan of just punching tickets when visiting Washington, and even if I was, this really isn't the place to do it.
I'll cover more of the logistics, best practices, and other nuts and bolts stuff in a follow up post, but for now, let me wrap up with a quick discussion of how long to spend here. Obviously, there is no one answer, and even the most dedicated museum-goer will have to accept the impossibility of seeing everything. A docent and I did a back of the envelope calculation once that it would take around 20 hours to view every exhibit, read every plaque, and watch every video in the Permanent Exhibit alone. That's most likely out of the question, but I'd say a good amount of time would be 2-3 hours for the Permanent Exhibit, with another hour thrown in to see the other exhibits, get a bite to eat, and reflect on the experience.