Holocaust Museum in Skokie opens thought-provoking exhibit
Anna Slafer of the International Spy Museum talks about the Chicago-area premiere of "Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America," a new exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
WHAT: “Spies, Traders and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America”
WHEN: Through Jan. 6, 2013
WHERE: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie.
MUSEUM HOURS: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
EXHIBIT CREATOR: The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
CONTACT: www.ilholocaustmuseum.org (847) 967-4800.
Updated: August 20, 2012 11:04AM
SKOKIE — Where were you on that infamous day when New York Harbor came under attack by those looking to harm the country from within?
The answer for most is not yet born. This was 85 years before the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which is a day everyone will remember for the rest of their lives.
But how many have even heard of the Black Tom explosion of July 30, 1916, on an island in New York Harbor in New Jersey?
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s compelling new traveling exhibition, “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America,” acquaints visitors with this historic act of sabotage early in its display.
The explosions were set by German agents to prevent American ammunition supplies from being used by allies in World War I. The impact, which reportedly felt like an earthquake, caused damage to the Statue of Liberty and shattered thousands of windows as far away as Manhattan. A handful of people were killed.
“Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” is packed with this kind of lesser-known history. But one of its great accomplishments is how it removes the distance between past and present.
The result is an exhibition that poses provocative questions about safeguarding the country’s citizenry without violating individual rights. Visitors do not watch history passively here; they are invited to think about these interactive displays, even answering thought-provoking questions electronically at several stations and comparing answers with those from an earlier era.
The attacks of 9/11 were, of course, the deadliest ever perpetrated within the country, but they followed a long time line of threats and violence from within.
“Ever since its founding,” the exhibition states, “the United States has been threatened with attack from domestic terrorists and foreign agents, militant radicals and saboteurs, traitors and spies.”
Created by the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., which opened shortly after 9/11, “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” offers a new perspective for the museum that at the same time probes challenging issues that have always been on its radar.
“The Holocaust survivors and the creators of this museum have a very deep and profound appreciation for the fragility of democracy,” said Holocaust Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut. “How far can speech go before it becomes an assault upon civil liberties, before it becomes uncivil?”
Even the museum’s founding, Hirschhaut noted, came from such a thorny question when neo-Nazis in the mid-1970s tried to march in Skokie — home to many Holocaust survivors.
“If we think about the early beginnings of this museum, it came out of an experience here in Skokie that tested the limits and elasticity of the First Amendment,” Hirschhaut said.
The International Spy Museum considers its ongoing focus “the secret history of history” but not simply to equip visitors with information from the past.
“We want to educate people so they can take a much more powerful role in helping to provide oversight in this really important government function,” said International Spy Museum Director of Exhibitions and Programs Anna Slafer.
The exhibition grew out of the realization that many people are ignorant of the history of terrorism within the United States with a few notable exceptions — 9/11 and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, for example.
But responses to that history have always resulted in security systems and laws adopted by the United States — from the FBI and CIA to Homeland Security, from the Espionage Act to the Patriot Act.
“The battle between civil liberty and national security has always been around,” Slafer said.
Aesthetically powerful, the exhibition delivers a winding chronology of internal terrorism, espionage and sabotage separated into different sections that feel ideally placed within the museum’s rough, industrial architecture.
Displays, photographs, films, video and artifacts are used in sections labeled revolution, sabotage, hate, radicalism, world war, subversion, protest, extremism and terrorism.
Unlike some of the other traveling exhibitions, “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” doesn’t include Skokie museum-only artifacts. But it has more than its share of local representation, from information about the Haymarket riot to Benjamin Smith, who went on an infamous hate crime shooting spree a little more than a dozen years ago.
That Smith grew up only miles from the museum makes the exhibition’s evocative and volatile subject matter feel even closer to home.
A later section explores right-wing and left-wing extremist groups in the United States, the latter of which includes a brief video history of the radical Weather Underground. Former member Bernardine Dohrn makes the case that the Weather Underground was not a terrorist group, an assertion that leaves visitors to consider whether she is right or wrong.
A middle section authentically replicates an FBI office when Communism was foremost on the bureau’s mind. Visitors can watch an anti-Communist newsreel produced by the Armed Forces and narrated by “Dragnet”’s Jack Webb that plays like a parody if one didn’t know better. They can read the FBI file on Lucille Ball and why she was investigated and why the investigation was dropped.
At every turn, “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs” invites thinking, pondering and debating about difficult questions that come in shades of grey rather than black and white.
Although the exhibition ends with 9/11, including fragments of one of the planes used to attack the World Trade Center, it’s a brief inclusion, in part because its history is still emerging. But also because in some ways, the exhibition is about lesser-known history leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.
“We didn’t want to beat people over the head with this connection between the present and the past,” Slafer said. “We have subtle ways in which we’ve set this up so people can make their own connections. We want them to start their own discussions and to think about these issues for themselves.”