Friday, November 23, 2012


Ralph Appelbaum, image from Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Ralph Appelbaum Associates was founded in 1978, and is now the largest interpretive museum design firm in the world. Among its most famous commissions is the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which marks its 20th anniversary in 2013. Below are selections from a 1998 interview I did with Ralph Appelbaum about the USHMM exhibition design. Throughout the interview, Appelbaum emphasized that the design process was a team effort, citing the work of, among others, the Museum's first director, Jeshajahu "Shaike" Weinberg, documentary filmmaker Martin Smith, scholar and filmmaker Michael Berenbaum, as well as his own firm's staff. (A related post on this blog is my 2009 podcast interview with USHMM curator Steve Luckert.) 

Where did the Holocaust stand in your imagination before you began the design process? 

It clearly stood as a seminal event in my life. I was born in ‘42, and read the books that one reads since the war, and was always engaged in it because I grew up in a Jewish household. My folks had grown up during periods of antisemitism that affected them in their careers. And so, I was aware of it as part of the family story—what my mother went through in America, and father went through in America.  

The Holocaust is one of the most talked-about historical events. How did you think about designing an exhibition that would make a new and powerful statement? 

There was a decision when we started the project to try to create a new body of visual and written information. We fielded photo researchers in all twenty countries affected by the Second World War. We also, through the curators, developed a comprehensive timeline of all the events that occurred. With an ultimate goal of expanding the dynamic [of victim and perpetrator], to add a third player, who was the bystander, and to deal with the dynamic of what happened between these three characters. To look at it not so much as an event of what Germans did to Jews, but what human beings can do to each other, given the right set of conditions. And to play it out without utilizing information that we couldn’t corroborate. So you never see the number six million, because we couldn’t actually corroborate the exact number.  

Tell me about the basic structure of the story the Museum tells.  

The story is told as a play in three acts, with the first floor being all the events that led up to the invasion of Poland. The second floor deals with the actual war against the Jews. The third floor deals with the aftermath and resolution of the event. Even knowing those three big building blocks is very powerful for many visitors who don’t know about it at all.  

You’ve talked about creating an experience in time and space for Museum visitors. What does that mean?  

Let me describe an older generation of exhibit-making. The museums were essentially generic in their type. They look like the Met or like the British Museum or like many museums, with the great steps and Ionic columns and a pediment and a central hall with a dome, or not, that led off into a collection of galleries which oftentimes grew opportunistically. One gallery didn’t necessarily relate to the next gallery. If it was a natural history museum, you could have Northwest coast Indians next to New York state farms next to meteorites. Museums grew as knowledge grew, and most of the collections were held behind a window, in a protected showcase. And where the viewer was really an observer. The newer thinking behind museums is to create an environment that uses more of the available tools of environment-making: media, video, performance art, theater and lighting and performance and smells and temperature and an interior architecture that make the story come alive. There are parts of [the Museum] where you’re constricted in your movement, because the story is a story of constriction and isolation and compression.  

How did the question of the Jewish core of the Holocaust play in the exhibition design? Was there a concern that an event with a Jewish core would not be of interest to non-Jews? 

The first question we asked ourselves was, "Why should Americans care about an event that happened in Europe to Jews forty or fifty years ago?" And we realized the answer [was] in the last words of the preamble [to the U.S. Constitution], which was to insure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And so the very first image that anyone sees when they enter the Museum is American GIs who are entering Germany and are parking their trucks around a giant funeral pyre of burned bodies, wondering, what is this about? And you can see the trucks belching smoke in the background, and everyone [has] their goggles off and dirt on their faces. It’s an amazing photograph that we printed very large. And the second thing people see are the very first color photographs taken by George Stevens as he entered the camps and entered Europe with the First Army, showing Americans the very first American photography of the event. And the next thing you see is an Army photograph of a lone survivor of a death camp, and then a picture of Eisenhower looking over the camps and a letter from him saying that if anyone wants to know what really happened here, ask [him]—offering to bear witness to what he saw, and ultimately why it’s important for Americans to care.  

The possible use of human hair in the exhibition was hotly debated. The hair itself didn’t end up in the exhibit, but what was the significance of the debate?  

As we were looking for evidence, I found myself in a room almost knee-deep in human hair, and we asked if we could get some, and they said yes. To us it seemed to play out the message of the story. When it was presented, it caused the most dramatic upheaval in survivors, who were pretty tough folks. But they felt this was going a step too far. Women survivors who sat on our board … felt it was just too painful. When they had their heads shaved, it was a symbol of the loss of their personhood. There were other people who felt that maybe it’s their mother’s hair in that pile. And so instead, we sent a photographer to Germany to take a photograph of the room where all the hair was stored, and that’s what appears in the Museum, is a large color photograph of this room of hair. ... When we designed the entrance to the railcar, everyone went through the railcar. And one of the women survivors on the committee said, “Look, I’m not going through that railcar again. There has to be a way for those of us who went on those railcars to not be in them again.” And so we created a special bypass that allows people to avoid that part of the experience, because of her, that one person, really. It seemed to us, as long as one person said it, what could we do? 

Does this mean that you as designers are ultimately responsible to Holocaust survivors? Are they the final arbiters in the design process? 

No, but how could one not? It’s rare that one can tell a historical story while the participants are still alive. It’s still journalism then, in a way. I think it is appropriate to have sensitivities to the living. That doesn’t mean that one day, years from now, some of these items wouldn’t come back on display. But no, I wouldn’t say that it was for them. We understood them as critically important parts of the story, but not the only part of the story.


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