Students created a Holocaust exhibit, inspiring creation of a museum

Southwest Florida Holocaust Museum
After studying the Holocaust, seventh grade students created a classroom art exhibit that eventually grew into the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida.

FLORIDA, USA – In 1997-98 after studying the Holocaust, a class of seventh grade students at Golden Gate Middle School created a classroom art exhibit titled, ‘Out of the Ashes’. The student exhibition eventually grew into what is now the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida. Since officially opening in 2001, the museum has now reached more than 15,000 students a year with its programs and attracts other visitors, including locals and tourists.

Teachers, David Bell, a social studies teacher who taught the students about the Holocaust, and Michelle Lee, an art teacher who helped with visuals for the exhibit, guided the 19 students whose mission was to create an exhibit to teach others what they’d learned so history wouldn’t be forgotten.

The idea for the class project came from one of Bell’s students, who learned about the Holocaust from watching the History Channel on TV. From the beginning, Bell thought it was a great idea. Students built the original Holocaust exhibit in an empty 650-square-foot classroom at Golden Gate Middle with a $1,200 grant from the Jewish Federation of Collier County.

David Bell recalled, “We never spent class time working on it. It was always lunch time, it was after school and it was on Saturdays.”

The Golden Gate exhibit included a set of production notes for the movie “Schindler’s List,” donated by director Steven Spielberg, and a photo of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, donated by renowned photographer Arnold Newman.  The students also acquired a Nazi flag and uniform, more than 100 books about the Holocaust and photos of prisoners in concentration camps. These donations were the result of the students writing letters to survivors and others with ties to the Holocaust to collect information and artifacts for their project.

The exhibition was intended to be on display at Golden Gate Middle School for just a few weeks, but as word spread among parents and community members it stayed for months. Curious visitors came to see it during the school day and several students were taught to be docents so they could lead guided tours.

After the exhibit came down, because the classrooms were needed for other activities, the artifacts went in and out of storage. The exhibit travelled to several other local schools, the Collier County Museum in East Naples and the Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero.

Ann Jacobson, a Holocaust survivor and refugee from Austria, turned to the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program to help create a museum based on the students’ project. The first step was moving the Holocaust project to a storefront. The Jewish Federation paid the rent and did the initial fundraising to open it to the public. From there the project evolved into a nonprofit museum, with others volunteering to build on what the students had started.

The collection at the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida now includes about 1,000 authentic photographs and artefacts. Parts of the student exhibit are spread throughout the museum, including a replica of a camp bunk made by middle school students and a tribute to Anne Frank, a young victim of the Holocaust whose diary is now famous.

In partnership with the Collier County Public School System, private schools and home school groups, the museum has served more than 145,000 students from kindergarten through university with age-appropriate programs throughout the Southwest Florida region.

Image: Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida Education Director Amy Macera explains the original Golden Gate Middle School exhibit to student Emily Helter. Photo from Naples Daily News 2009

More information:

The Holocaust Museum & Education Centre of Southwest Florida

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