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Exhibit A: Ralph Appelbaum's Influence in the Museum World Is Clearly Evident
But Montpelier, at the time, had a small budget (about a half-million dollars), and Langston-Harrison says they got "the B and C team," kids "right out of design school.
"They were all in black and all down here with their cellphones, and we'd say, 'Guys, we need content, we need to make sure that people can read those panels, the edges can't be sharp so kids won't bang their heads into them.' " That tension, between basic content and aesthetic appeal, dogs the work of every museum designer, and it's been a recurring issue for Appelbaum. And one he's still sensitive to.
But he has a long list of happy clients.
"He is a wonderful human being," says Peter Pritchard, former president of the Newseum. Pritchard worked with Appelbaum on the designs for both Newseums, the old one in Rosslyn and the new, $450 million one that opened on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"He is very flexible, he listens, he always has the latest avant-garde gadget -- the Kindle, or whatever," says Pritchard. Even Langston-Harrison says that despite the "back-burner" treatment at Montpelier, the experience encouraged her to "think outside of the box" with future exhibitions.
Everything Appelbaum says makes him sound like the anti-Appelbaum. He insists that technology shouldn't drive design, and he laments the degree to which young people often cocoon with their earbuds and iPods. He emphasizes the importance of objects and scholarship. And he says that museums are in a "life and death struggle with the fictive," which is why he doesn't like theme-park-like reconstructions of places.
Suddenly, it becomes apparent that Appelbaum's mind works a bit like a fortune teller's. He tosses out a barrage of ideas until he finds one that resonates, and then he pursues it tenaciously. You never doubt that he believes what he's saying.
In his office, he shows a picture of a meeting in Nigeria for the project for Obasanjo, the man who perked up when Appelbaum suggested they focus his presidential library on "how to make a Nigerian child." It's moments like these that have propelled him into the first rank of designers.
One can almost hear the new presidential library coming together, the laughter of children, running from display to display, the mild cacophony of music competing with the burble of videos, showing smiling Nigerians making and doing traditional things. It will be a wonderful, happy place to visit, and no one, once it's finished, will ever fret much about whether it answers the question: How do you make a Nigerian child? Because it was a silly question to begin with, but immensely useful for the people behind the scenes, who didn't know how to get started.