Exhibit A: Ralph Appelbaum's Influence in the Museum World Is Clearly Evident

The Washington Post's Phil Kennicott takes a look at three museums in the Washington DC area and the experience that each creates for their visitors.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

According to Ralph Appelbaum, last year more than 30 million people passed through a museum or exhibition created by his New York-based firm. If that number is true, then Appelbaum isn't just the head of the world's largest museum and exhibit design firm, he is one of the most influential educators of our time. It's unlikely that you know his name, but the chances are good that if you've been to a museum in the past two decades, you've seen his work, or the work of other designers trying to imitate his work.

In New York, he transformed the American Museum of Natural History into what is deemed one of the best and most engaging science museums in the world. In Philadelphia, he created the National Constitution Center, a newfangled edutainment center, featuring life-size statues of the country's founders, interactive kiosks and a high-tech theater in the round, with a live actor dramatizing the creation of the nation's founding document. And in Little Rock, he took on the prestigious commission of designing exhibitions for Bill Clinton's presidential library.

In the United Kingdom, he has worked for the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the Royal Museum in Scotland. He maintains offices in London and Beijing.

Appelbaum's firm, incorporated in 1978 and now with about 140 employees, rose to prominence after he designed the displays for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the early 1990s. Last April, the Newseum opened 70,000 square feet of exhibition space designed by Appelbaum and Associates, and in December, another 16,500 square feet of Appelbaum-designed exhibition space opened at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. If plans go forward for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitors center -- an underground facility planned near the Wall -- Appelbaum is slated to design that as well.

Appelbaum is the biggest player in what's often called "interpretive design," which involves everything from the look of showcases, signage, interpretive films, Web site design and the placement of objects to the overall concept for a museum. Over the years, as his influence has grown, he has gone from thinking about exhibitions to branding whole institutions. But more than anything else, he has become an expert at finding "the big idea" that helps museum directors and boards feel good about what they do. When he took on the task of designing a presidential library for former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, for example, he proposed focusing the displays on the question, "What does it take to make a Nigerian child?" It's an unanswerable question, but it provided the necessary aha moment that made it all come together, a positive theme that finesses some of the philosophical problems of a presidential library in a country riven by corruption, violence, and religious, ethnic, linguistic and economic divisions. Every Appelbaum project is driven by a similar, organizing leitmotif.

Appelbaum's influence is enormous in part because he has capitalized on a time in the museum world when the lines between entertainment and education have blurred, as museums feel competition from an ever wider array of distractions. There's a trend toward museums wanting to be all things to all people, technologically seductive but educational; a place for scholarship and conservation, but also a family entertainment destination. Museum directors worry about having a reputation for being old-fashioned, yet they don't want to surrender their status as authoritative, even elite places. Appelbaum is happy to help them sort things out.

The 'Content Aggregator'

In the course of a five-hour conversation in his office on the 29th floor of a downtown New York high-rise, Appelbaum, 66, throws out perhaps a dozen different definitions of what museums should do.

"Museums are essentially ethical constructs."

"They are about the fabric and texture of our creativity . . ."

"They cure social amnesia . . . "

"They teach from the inside out . . ."

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company