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

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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.

The list goes on, but the ideas all stress the opening up of museums as social and learning spaces, community centers, places of collective engagement. He borrows the progressive language of a century ago, the ideals of John Dewey and John Cotton Dana, who sought to incorporate hands-on experience into education, and rescue cultural institutions from elitist and exclusionary leadership. It is a progressive vision updated for the Internet age and, not surprisingly, Appelbaum's projects are saturated with interactive technology. Touch screens, mini-theaters and video monitors are set within large walls of photographs, all emphasizing the abundance of knowledge, the multiplicity of voices, the layeredness of our media-saturated society.

He calls himself a "content aggregator," who is interested in game theory and stresses the outreach potential of social networking sites. For a language museum in Brazil, he has designed an interactive "language table," which encourages groups of people to play around with the basic elements of Portuguese. He's enthusiastic about technology from the legendary MIT Media Lab that enables people to hear complex inner lines of music while moving around in a high-tech sound space. And he's talking about a bar-code ticket that will allow museum visitors to download information from exhibitions and send it straight to their e-mail inboxes.

He has also shifted the emphasis of many museums decidedly toward the family, places where parents and children can have fun together.

"Most of our strategies involve keeping intergenerational groups together," he says.

But more than anything, Appelbaum likes the hubbub of the museum.

"I like to hear what the people are saying, their sense of aesthetic awe, like at the Grand Canyon," he says. "I love to hear people say, that is just beautiful."

All of this has led Appelbaum to a rather extraordinary view of what museums do.

"The goal of a museum isn't so much about creating cognitive understanding," he says. "Children leave with the non-cognitive aspects: that science is done with a sense of selflessness and integrity, that they do it with a sense of duty -- that there's more to know."

A Question of Philosophy

Another way of putting this, however, is that Appelbaum is more interested in museums that make us feel than museums that make us think. Left out of his ideal museum -- though he denies this -- is the solitary visitor deeply interested in objects, the small changes in pots or machines or paintings that happen over years, the quirks and eccentricities of material objects brought out of the old, overstuffed, chaotic display cases that are increasingly being banished from public view in the new museum world.

"Museums need to see themselves not as open portals, but in a relationship with the visitor," he says. "Ah, you're back, and you're 18 now, not 14."

That comment can stand for a number of ways in which the Appelbaum museum often feels smothering -- emotionally, intellectually and even architecturally -- especially to an older generation of visitors. He likes walls of photographs, punctuated by large, emotionally resonant objects, such as the Lincoln Catafalque that functions as a kind of mini-shrine amid the more prosaic displays at the Capitol Visitor Center.

And he likes to organize space such that visitors see each other interacting with the exhibits. When he is after an emotional effect, he often resorts to overbearing repetition, as in a huge display of newspaper front pages announcing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks hung outside a Newseum gallery where visitors can watch footage of reporters at work on that day. The same display also features the antenna from the top of the World Trade Center, a huge twisted piece of metal that also confines people in the exhibition space, in an effort to intensify the social and emotional power of the event. For a while, there was a box of tissues nearby so that visitors could wipe their tears.


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