Americans don't read anymore, and the museums have noticed.
No longer can we stroll through a white-walled room and linger over a jargon-heavy treatise explaining the origins of an artifact or painting. We're all screen-addled, attention-deficit narcissists, and you're totally kidding yourself if you think we can sit still and actually learn something without being stimulated into submission and retweeting the experience with our own clever spin.
The Museum of Tolerance's new $4 million, 9,000 square-foot exhibit on the life of Anne Frank brings together two recent trends in exhibit design — sensory immersion and visitor participation — for a 21st century theme-park version of the famous diary.
“The style of an interactive, experiential and immersive exhibit is attractive to an American audience,” says museum director Liebe Geft, “[whereas] the audience in Europe is inclined to read.”
Through a carefully orchestrated and timed sequence of videos, audio recordings and feedback-demanding touch-screens, visitors to “Anne,” which opened to the public earlier this month, learn about the Holocaust through the idiosyncrasies of one charming and articulate young lady.
And there's plenty for gawky middle schoolers on field trips to find relatable: a reenactment of Frank's first kiss, giant wall quotes about Hollywood dreams and not being able to tan while in hiding, and the closest thing the era had to selfies or Snapchats — a series of passport-size department store photos, complete with goofy smiles and silly faces.
The hallway entrance to the exhibit perfectly encapsulates the twin goals of immersion and participation: As the sounds of antebellum Frankfurt play overhead, the mirror to your left places you in the black-and-white photograph of a German street stretched across the serrated wall to your right. Further inside, Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) reads timed excerpts from the diary and from letters Frank and her sister Margot wrote, guiding you from childhood to adolescence to a bookcase just like the one in Amsterdam that concealed the secret annex where eight Jews hid for two years. This one swings aside to reveal a small theater with an enormous curved screen where excerpts from the diary are dramatized in silhouettes and sepia, flickering with many images at once so as to not leave the YouTube generation bored or underwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy.
Sensory immersion isn't always this cheesy — the LA Museum of the Holocaust uses an abundance of screens to powerful effect in their Tree of Testimony exhibit, which overwhelms the viewer with a multitude of sobering stories from actual survivors. In comparison, this new exhibit's exaggeration of the horrors of ethnic cleansing for cinematic effect feels disingenuous. Of course, reducing the Holocaust to one girl's story does make it easier to understand and empathize with the vast, slaughtered millions; that's why the intimate, heart-wrenching diary has sold over 30 million copies. But do Angelenos really need all of these other tech-happy bells and whistles to get us to pay attention?
Leon Rodriguez, the president of LA-based exhibit design firm LR-LA, thinks we do.
“If you engage more senses, you'll have a higher probability of remembering what you're seeing,” he says. “And the more you offer people the opportunity to interact, the more engaged they'll feel.”
Rodriguez worked on exhibit design at the Getty for nearly a decade and has since consulted on exhibits for the Natural History Museum, the Autry and the Huntington, so L.A. Weekly brought him along to the Museum of Tolerance to counter our innate skepticism of infotainment and our Franzen-esque disgust with the self-centeredness of what's called Museum 2.0.
Remember Web 2.0? That was when the internet switched from a lecture to a conversation, filling with user-generated content on sites like Livejournal and Wikipedia and Twitter. With Museum 2.0, visitors are asked to contribute to the museum, usually by considering the connection between their lives and the exhibit. At two touch-screen kiosks halfway through “Anne,” museumgoers respond to prompts such as “In what ways has your family been singled out?” or “What part of your personality do you sometimes hide?” (Herbert, 43: “I love to SING!”)
And at the end of the exhibit, in the Interactive Action Lab, two touch-screen tables allow about a dozen people at a time to record how the experience made them feel (Sad? Angry? Hopeful?) and to make a pledge to start volunteering or to stand up to bullies in order to end the kind of prejudice that led to the death of six million Jews less than a century ago.
Similarly crowd-sourced elements have been popping up at museums all over town in recent years. This past summer, visitors to the Getty's Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future exhibition answered the question “What is your L.A.?” on small cards that were then collected into an album posted on the museum's Facebook page. At the Hammer Museum's “Graphic Design: Now in Production” exhibit last year, museumgoers placed poker chips in clear plastic containers to indicate whether they preferred the new or the old logos for organizations like Starbucks and the New York Public Library.
But isn't the Holocaust too heavy of a subject to incorporate these hokey appeals to our childish need to insert our own opinions and experiences into every damn thing we see or hear about?
Rodriguez found some of the graphics in the Anne Frank exhibit incongruous with the subject matter — “too friendly and happy,” he says — but he really liked the museum's efforts at helping visitors connect with history. He may or may not have called L.A. Weekly out on being a nostalgic curmudgeon for thinking otherwise.
“For most Americans, there's no context for a story of that magnitude, unless you're a refugee,” he says. “The interactive elements allow anybody to come and see how Anne Frank is relevant to their lives.”
Well, fine, we replied, between harrumphs. Perhaps that makes sense. Some people will always prefer quiet reflection to public commentary, but if it takes an Oscar-nominated actress and a bunch of fancy technology to get kids to pay attention, so be it.
Just don't try to force the rest of us to fit our feelings about genocide into 140 characters.
Amanda Lewis on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: