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Exhibit A: Ralph Appelbaum's Influence in the Museum World Is Clearly Evident
The claustrophobic feel of some places in the Holocaust Museum is meant to emphasize the dehumanization of Nazi victims, but it's also part of an architectural control that extends to the subliminal level. In 1995, explaining the layout of doors and floors in the Holocaust Museum, Appelbaum wrote, "Visitors needn't notice these details to benefit emotionally from their resonance." But this control can also feel manipulative, as when, at the Newseum, you pass from a gallery devoted to freedom of the press into a shrine for journalists who have died on the job (with another wall of pictures).
All of this enforces Appelbaum's idea of "noncognitive" education. But what does that mean? If you listen to Appelbaum closely, his educational philosophy sounds curiously old-fashioned. He speaks about museums in the reverential tones of Matthew Arnold, whose 19th-century notion of culture as "the best that has been thought and said" made his name synonymous with elitism for generations. And Appelbaum's insistence on the primacy of a big, emotional, ray-of-light moment in museum-going is curiously reminiscent of an even older educational philosophy, spelled out by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his novel "Emile." Rousseau imagined teaching through carefully planned "epiphanies," moments of enlightenment prepared with all the rigorous dramatization of a torch-song aria in an opera.
It's not clear that this sort of educational philosophy actually works. Or that it's any less elitist than the old-fashioned museum that hardly exists anymore. Or that it's appropriate for the wide array of institutions to which Appelbaum applies it. It was odd, when the Capitol Visitor Center opened, to see how ineffective his approach was for this quintessential icon of American democracy. The Capitol now looks and feels a lot like the more commercially focused Newseum, while it might have been better served by something more dignified, even, perhaps, stuffier.
'A Film in Three Acts'
The layout of Appelbaum's office, which overlooks the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge, reflects the basics of his design philosophy. There is a small table with busts of great men. Against one wall there is a table of objects -- toys, rocks, photographs -- each representing one of his major projects. And in the middle, serving as a huge desk, another table groans with books, relevant to projects as far afield as a rug museum in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Books and objects, stories and things, are the raw material of his business. Appelbaum is immensely well read and his command of detail, and his capacity for good talk, are calling cards in this business.
Just as he structures his museums around epiphanies, he remembers his life that way as well. One of the big ones came while he was in the Peace Corps in Peru.
"Between growing seasons, they would make things," he remembers of the native people. But it struck him that there was a gap, a missing link, between the objects they made and what the world understood about those objects.
"What they said about what they made rarely accompanied the object to the store shelf, or the museum," he says. And it became Appelbaum's passion to fill in that missing narrative, the human side to the seemingly lifeless object. In the late 1980s, the Holocaust Museum would offer him the chance to do that on a level beyond anything he had accomplished.
He called it "a film in three acts," according to Raye Farr, director of film and video at the Holocaust Museum. And that was, perhaps, the Big Idea that helped it all come together.
After the Holocaust Museum opened, Appelbaum became the go-to man for reinventing old museums, rebranding, redesigning and, given that most museums operate in the nonprofit world, fundraising. Appelbaum says he logs 250,000 miles per year, visiting various projects. And many of those visits are about persuading wealthy and powerful people to pay for them.
It hasn't always been a smooth ride. Lee Langston-Harrison, now the head of the Museum of Culpeper History, worked with Appelbaum's firm when it was brought on to do design work for James Madison's home, Montpelier, in the late 1990s.
"Appelbaum had just come off the high of doing the Holocaust Museum," she remembers. "They chose Appelbaum because it had such cachet, and that was going to put Montpelier on the map."