By contrast, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has been roundly praised for its exhibits, which are at once comprehensive and intimate. You shouldn’t want to immerse yourself in one of humanity’s grisliest atrocities, but this museum makes that improbable phenomenon happen. And can leave you changed by it.
What can Bunch learn from these most recent additions to the Mall?
First lesson: “Just how complex this endeavor is,” said Bunch in a phone interview earlier this week.
The most important takeaway from the Holocaust Museum, he said, is “the importance of personalizing big issues and grand tragedies.”
Bunch said he especially admires how that museum presents the mass extermination of Jews and other groups in Europe by bringing it down to a human scale. Before entering the permanent exhibit, visitors are encouraged to pick up identification cards that relate brief histories of people who were persecuted by the Nazis. Throughout the museum, the human toll is illustrated not only through archival films and Nazi artifacts but with victims’ family photographs, their toys, prison uniforms, even piles of their shoes.
“What the Holocaust Museum does well is it says: It is hard to imagine the loss of 6 million people,” said Bunch, “but it’s easier to imagine the loss of those five or those 10.”
Borrowing from this, the African American Museum may look at slavery “through the lens of a specific plantation, the people who lived on it and their challenges, so you really begin to care about individuals,” he said.
The brutality of slave auctions may be driven home through the bill of sale of a single girl, with its description of what she looked like and who her family was.
Ralph Appelbaum, the exhibit designer credited with helping to make the Holocaust Museum a compelling destination since its opening in 1993, will also design the African American Museum’s exhibits. Bunch said he asked Appelbaum’s team to deliver “the best of the storytelling narrative of the Holocaust Museum.”
Sara J. Bloomfield, who has worked for the Holocaust Museum for 25 years, and has been its director since 1999, says the extraordinary impact can be traced back to its founding director, the late Jeshajahu Weinberg, who had a theater background, and Martin Smith, a documentary filmmaker and one of the museum’s designers.