Millions flock each year to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, making its exhibitions on systematic, state-sponsored mass murder the surprise success of the national Mall.
But according to Sheldon S. Cohen, the chair of a committee that has just finished a major study of the museum’s governance, this popular acclaim masks serious problems behind the scenes.
“The administrative side of the museum has been woefully managed,” he said. “Their personnel and payroll practices, their finances, their frequent failure to pay their bills on time — that does not show to the public; but it won’t take too long before it does. It already is.”
Cohen, a former IRS commissioner, headed a panel sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration. At the request of the
House Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, which oversees the $35 million a year in federal funds for the museum, Cohen’s group conducted a comprehensive study of the museum.
In many ways, Cohen stressed, the museum, which opened in 1993, is merely now a victim of its own success, which brings with it new requirements for accountability.
“This is a new organization that got started by using a lot of improvisation and imagination,” he explained. “But as it got more mature, it kept using those techniques, which are high risk. And it’s different when you get more mature.”
Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Council, which governs the museum, said he agreed with many, though not all, of the panel’s recommendations — not excluding the finding that Lerman himself and his executive committee have been too involved in day-to-day management.
“By and large, it’s an accurate and good report,” he said. “We do recognize we are now at a point where we must implement a process of governance, with clear boundaries for the staff and the lay leaders.”
Many of the panel’s recommendations are already being launched under the leadership of Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s new executive director, Lerman said. The panel, which conducted its study just as Bloomfield came in last year, agreed that she has begun instituting some of their suggestions.
But Lerman staunchly rejected the Cohen panel’s finding that as chair he himself tended “to make important decisions and enter into agreements without adequate consultation or sharing of information.”
“I’ve always informed my executive committee,” he said. “My record speaks for itself.”
Lerman rejected the suggestion that the report would harm its congressional funding. But insiders said the museum’s hope to obtain permanent funding commitments, rather than periodic authorizations, now looked bleak.