The Horror Speaks For Itself

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Designer: Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc.

The Treblinka railcar was a vexing problem. As Ralph Appelbaum designed the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, he planned to force visitors to walk through the type of railcar that took thousands of people to the notorious Treblinka concentration camp.

But a survivor of the camps who sat on the museum's advisory board balked. She vowed never to set foot in the car. To mollify her, Appelbaum moved a wall to offer an "escape" before the entrance to the train. When he explained the change, the survivor insisted on calling it a bypass. No one escaped the railcars, she said.

This was just one of numerous emotional minefields Appelbaum had to navigate during the five years he spent designing the three-story, 36,000-square-foot exhibition, which opened in April, 1993. His dilemma: creating an exhibit that didn't traumatize visitors but that adequately conveyed the horror.

Judges for the Industrial Designers Society of America think New York's Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. walked that fine line with nary a misstep. The exhibit is a "masterpiece of communication" that presents the history of the Holocaust "without ever trivializing, glorifying, or becoming sentimental," says Lella Vignelli, president of Vignelli Designs, a judge in the competition.

Appelbaum's strategy was to design the exhibit to present information as if he were building a case like a lawyer: a step-by-step accumulation of facts and evidence--from graphics and photos to historical film footage and artifacts--to provide irrefutable proof of the Holocaust. The atmospherics are as compelling as the collection: dim lighting, slabs of glass, and steel supports. "You have the impression of being in a black space," Vignelli says. "You just see what you need to see."

The design plays heavily on spatial and physical perceptions to enhance the message. Visitors to the exhibit first form a line, then are herded into a mock industrial elevator--the first metaphorical link to the Jews, Poles, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others who were shipped to the camps. Just before the elevator door opens on the fourth floor, the electronic voice of an American soldier who helped free Buchenwald sets the tone for what's to come. "You can't imagine it," he says. "Things like that don't happen." The door opens up to a floor-to-ceiling picture of what the Allies saw when they entered the camps: piles of decaying corpses.

The third floor, called the Final Solution, details the fate of the Third Reich's victims. The floors and raw-concrete ceilings are unfinished to "evoke what was happening to people," Appelbaum says.

SURVIVAL TALES. The second floor, where the exhibit ends, is uplifting. It tells stories of those who rescued targets of the Nazis, of the Nuremberg trials, and of those who fled to safety. A large color screen offers oral histories from concentration-camp survivors.

The exhibit has met public as well as critical acclaim: The 1.3 million visitors the first year and their average three-hour stays exceeded projections. Appelbaum's success has emboldened others to propose museums about slavery and about U.S. camps for Japanese Americans during World War II--topics that before would not have been subjects for popular museums.

Presenting difficult subject matter that neither sensationalizes nor trivializes is an immense design problem. In so doing, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum breaks ground.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.