The Past is the Present
On the job with Amy Snyder, executive director, Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida
There are certainly bigger, more comprehensive Holocaust museums throughout the U.S. But the Holocaust Museum and Education Center of Southwest Florida, while comparatively minuscule, has an important mission: highlighting the personal stories of Naples-based survivors and liberators, and using them to teach 15,000 area students a year about the horrors and triumphs of World War II. It’s spearheaded by Amy Snyder, executive director since 2011, who’s seen the 16-year-old museum expand from a tiny collection run on a shoestring, into an assemblage of more than 1,000 paintings, photographs and artifacts with an annual budget of $600,000. We caught up with Canastoga, New York, native Snyder, once a middle school social studies teacher, for a peek at the workings of what she lovingly calls her “homespun” institution.
The Museum has unusual origins. Can you tell us about them?
It started in 1997, with 19 visionary seventh graders at Golden Gate Middle School, who were reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in their language arts class. Not a single one of them had a connection to the Holocaust. But they became so engaged with the topic they decided to create an exhibit that would teach the community what they’d learned. That was the inspiration for our museum, which was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001, and education is still an essential part of what we do. We have three core programs aimed at elementary, middle and high school students, and we also provide appropriate curricula for teachers.
What brought you in?
I’ve always loved museums, and after getting my Certificate in Museum Studies at Tufts University in Boston, I worked at the Concord Museum and the Old Manse. My older brother and his wife live in this area, though, and when they had two little boys, I wanted to be close so I could be the favorite auntie. I interviewed to be education outreach coordinator at the Holocaust Museum in 2003 and was pretty much hired that day.
Is it very different working at this museum after the others?
You can have fun with American history. You can’t quite do that with the Holocaust. That’s our challenge: How do we continue to make the history relevant and engaging, but keep the necessary gravitas? We’ve recorded testimony from over 90 survivors and liberators in the community—and there are new ones every season, who come in and tell us their stories. We’ve got that personal connection here that’s a really neat experience for the kids.
What’s your favorite artifact in the collection?
Bill Farnsworth is a local artist who illustrated a book about Irena Sendler, who rescued children from the Warsaw ghetto. He donated 19 beautiful paintings from the book to us. We don’t normally take artwork—we have a tiny space and we’re bursting at the seams. But because the book centers on children, the paintings became the core of our middle grade education program. Mr. Farnsworth framed them for us, and we put them on display and invited him here. He was so touched. Again, that personal story is what makes them, and this place, so special to me.