Making History: Students in Mexico Open Mobile Holocaust Museum

MEXICO CITY - It took one year to research and build, but when students and teachers at the Prepa Ibero School put the finishing touches on a mobile Holocaust museum, it was like a dream come true - well, partially.

“It’s a project we are dreaming, and it is a constant dream that we are building,” Prepa Ibero history teacher and academic coordinator Yves Solis says about the museum, which opened in 2012. Called "Moments and Decisions," the museum uses the Facing History and Ourselves lens to explore European and Mexican histories during World War II and invites viewers to consider issues of identity, choices, and prejudice. Prepa Ibero students bring the museum to other high school and college campuses around the country to help others learn about this important chapter in their national history.

“After going through the museum, you will come out and be thinking, ‘What can I do for my world today?’” Solis says. 

The idea for “Moments and Decisions” came about after a group of students from a Jewish day school in Mexico visited Prepa Ibero, a Jesuit high school whose mission encourages social awareness and citizenship. The visiting students brought with them a traveling Holocaust exhibit. The Prepa Ibero students were so moved, they wanted to embark on a similar project. So in 2011, Solis applied for a Facing History teaching grant. With support from the grant, which helps Facing History teachers worldwide develop projects that transform schools and impact student learning, he and his colleagues got to work, meeting twice a week after school. About 20 interested students signed on to the project, which was an extracurricular endeavor with a lot of work and no course credit. Before they started their research, the students met with their teachers to discuss the Holocaust and Mexican history using Facing History resources and themes. They visited Mexico’s tolerance and Holocaust museums and had frequent talks about their own identities as Mexican citizens.

“Our goal is to make a difference with other people – to make a united world with other citizens,” says16-year-old Juan Pablo Alberto Palafox Gavito. “I got involved with the project because I love history and because I am convinced that our (societal) problems are a consequence of bad decisions made in the past.”

For the students and teachers at Prepa Ibero, using Facing History in this project was a natural fit. Since the school opened in 2010, administrators have worked with Facing History staff to infuse the organization’s methods and resources throughout the school culture and curricula. In 2011, Prepa Ibero became the first international school to join Facing History’s Innovative Schools Network.

The students took on different parts of the museum project. Some dug into primary sources while others researched photographs. One student was in charge of all the wires and technology involved and another painted a mural depicting a German city scene. “They became more and more engaged as we did the work,” says teacher Yael Siman, who was involved in the project from the start.

Walking through the museum takes about a half-hour. Student guides meet all visitors at the entrance and ask about their personal identities. From there, visitors sit down to watch The Lunch Date, a short film that deals with issues of stereotyping and assumptions about “the other.” Visitors then proceed into an area that examines Germany and Mexico during the Weimar Republic, the time shortly before the Holocaust began. Timelines tracing historical moments in Europe and in Mexico wind throughout the exhibit. On the walls are press clippings and historical photos.

“We wanted to show the second World War and how that affected or interacted with our domestic politics,” Siman says.

At the end of the tour, visitors are presented with ethical dilemmas and consider questions that hopefully bring the discussion outside the confines of the museum’s walls.

“More than a museum, it is a place to think, to find yourself, to understand others and take a stand, to say no to injustice, racism, and prejudice,” Siman says.

“I think it’s a very important thing. It’s important not to forget what happened,” says student Hans Schall, 17. “Doing this gives personal satisfaction. It was one year, but it was worth it. It made us more conscious of what happened.”

“I believe the museum project is more intense than having discussions in the classroom during the semester,” Siman says. “It creates social awareness, promotes a desire to choose to participate, and promotes critical thinking. The lessons of history, of prevention, now become tied to this other project that the kids are really excited about.”

But when it comes to the museum, it’s not only the students who are excited.

“It’s a change from how we used to work – now students and teachers are working and learning at the same time,” says Solis. Siman agrees.

“I’ve became more and more engaged as I saw how engaged [the students] have become,” she says. “It created friendship between us [the teachers]. It brought us together into a community.”

Now that it’s open, the teachers and students hope the museum will continue to strengthen community ties among those who go inside.

“The possibility to make a museum is like an alternative – it is creating possibility and allowing other students to consider change,” Solis says. “By using Facing History, we are showing that there is another way.”

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