Terror House - (another look)

Review

of an Exhibition

by Wayne LaBar

Published on September 14, 2008

  • Description:

    This is an excerpt of a review for The Informal Learning Review (ILR) go there for the full review. Thanks Mac West

    Design
    The key to the experience is the design, its power and emotion, and it succeeds in incorporating architectural space, environmental dimensions and exhibit components. It is certainly one of the most holistically integrated experiences I have ever encountered. This is evident immediately after leaving the ticket box office, and entering the adjacent central courtyard of the building. There you can look up to the three floors above, but your eyes are drawn to the Soviet tank that sits at the bottom over a reflecting pool. It is amazing to see this tank constricted into this courtyard. Behind the tank, stretching up to the glass that roofs over the space, are photographs that are simply identified as “victims.”
    For each of the rooms one encounters on the three floors of exhibition, the designers and developers did not recreate them as they were. Rather, each room is used to tell a “chapter” in the story or is a “viewpoint” for looking at what happened in Hungary over nearly half a century. On the floor plan this means that the rooms are loosely organized by time, but periodically as you walk, rooms highlight an aspect of life or the process that occurred.
    Each of these rooms is designed and laid out in what I would describe as an as art installation/immersive diorama where the visitor is part of the scene. For some they portray what the room may have looked like in a stylistic way, while for others the room is pure “theatrics.”

    For a theatrics example let me describe the Resettlement and Deportation room: Here you find a long room with several monitors hung on both sides along the length of the wall, along with some documents and photos. The monitors appear to play the same program – all focusing on the sometimes secret deportation and resettlement of Hungarian citizens. There is a musical soundtrack throughout the entire space that creates a sense of terror and foreboding. Sitting in the middle of the room, certainly adding to that feeling is a rectangular area curtained off by black sheer fabric. As you look more closely, hidden on all four sides within the curtain is a black ZIM automobile, harkening back to the vehicle that would pick up citizens off the streets – probably never to be seen by friends and family again – and if lucky, were deported or resettled. There is no interpretation of the car, but none is necessary. The use of music, lighting and the dramatically presented artifacts, often presented in ways that are more about evoking emotion and drama – rather than allowing them to be studied by the visitor – is why I describe them as interactive, immersive art/content installations.
    All spaces of the museum were treated in this manner- except the torture room which is left as it was. From the courtyard to the elevator that takes one from the first floor to the basement – all areas have been used to create a seamless theatrical experience filled with emotion, content and remembrance.

    I would also like to highlight the use of music throughout the exhibition to create emotion as one moves through the space. I must admit, I am not sure if this is separate from the media pieces or whether the soundtracks were the source, but it is not often one leaves an exhibition and remembers the soundtrack.

    While museums such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, have experiences as described above – the Shoe Room comes to mind – the use of these materials and artifacts throughout most of the museum is very different. In addition, the variety of ways in which the experience was interpreted and the impressive choreography among the elements was extraordinary.

    Content
    Perhaps the other most striking contrast between this institution and those of a similar ilk with which I was more familiar (i.e., the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC) was the approach to information. In other museums there might be occasional immersive spaces, followed by a rather straightforward didactic interpretation of artifacts, and media installations that provide content and strive to achieve the educational objectives of the exhibition. This is very different from the way content is presented in the Terror Museum.
    There are artifacts at the Terror House, but for the amount of available space, their number seems small; rather, it appears that the curators/designers were highly selective in their choice as well as placement of artifacts. Identification and explanation of these artifacts is minimal.
    In fact, this minimalism of graphical didactic information continues throughout the entire museum. Yes, there are graphics in the rooms, but more often they are used as much to create the feel of the space as they are to provide information. There is an extreme lack of the graphic panels we all often use in exhibitions. I am speaking of those that include headers, subheads, body copy and perhaps a photo or two with a sidebar that provides supplementary information. There are almost none of these in the museum.
    Actually, it was mainly the media pieces that provided content and context. Almost every room had them, and they were a principal way through which further meaning was provided. Some were minimally interactive, but none seemed as complex as we might find in other museums. Often, they were almost treated as artifacts themselves. For example, personal stories of having worked in a Gulag were one of the artifacts experienced in the Gulag room.
    Conclusion: Thoughts
    1. The power of authenticity at the Terror Museum is its strength, and it certainly had an impact on me. This is not just “any” authenticity, but an authenticity of space as well as artifact – I was in the actual building where this story occurred. While I have visited many historical sites and locations, another key element of this authenticity was my personal authenticity. This museum was about the history I lived through, which made it more powerful. I think we should not underestimate the power that museums of recent events (9/11 Museum, Newseum, etc.) can have.

    2. It also proved that authenticity need not shackle one’s experience design and creation. I would suggest that if this had been a “period house,” its impact – while still felt – would have been much less. While the artifacts were real, the rooms were not; however, this did not distract from my experience in the slightest.

    3. In the science centre field we have begun, in earnest, a discussion about making our facilities and efforts more relevant to the issues that we face as human beings. I believe this museum proves that museums can and must play an important role in relevancy. It shows this is possible to do in a very outspoken manner; one need not hide the facts; and all elements – from architecture to exhibitions – should be seen through this lens.

    4. On a personal note, this is the second museum where I felt what it might be like to be on the wrong side of history. Both here and in a recent visit to a museum in Turkey, I saw exhibits that explore World War One. It makes me wonder what future generations will be seeing in museums around the world about more recent events and how political perspectives may shape our fields’ discussion.

    5. Visiting the Terror House and then finding out about the controversy around its content is an issue I hope the 9/11 Memorial project is following closely. Perhaps more important is the idea that the New York project takes some of these “lessons learned” to heart. An exhibition paradigm has surely been set for future memorial museums and for those museums who hope, through their existence, to deter the event they recount from ever happening again.

    6. Finally, let me reflect on the experiences themselves. I would call the Terror House’s approach to presenting the story one that was driven by evoking emotion first, with content coming second. This was done through creating these art/installation/dioramas that I found so effective. These succeeded due to their holistic and well thought out use of artifacts, theatrical elements, lighting, music and media. This makes me believe that this treatment can be used for other stories we wish to tell, whether they be the questions surrounding a specific scientific discovery or technological invention, or a particular challenge facing our species, such as globalization. Creating an exhibition that first drives emotion may in fact be a much more effective tool for engaging the public. In fact, I left the space looking for partners to create a similar experience about global warming – a challenge filled with poignancy, beauty, heroics and tragedy – that this museum showed can be made into an experience that is incredibly memorable. Interested? Drop me line – wlabar@lsc.org.

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