Winner Announced: The Worst Museum Concept of 2011

Well it’s only January but I’m ready to declare the newly opened multimedia exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Kibbutz Museum in Israel as the most tasteless, insensitive, and utterly banal attempt at heritage presentation of 2011.

And the award for the most outstanding purveyor of trashy heritage goes to Mr. David Gafni, chief designer of such politically and religiously loaded heritage sites as Tel Aviv’s Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish People (former the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora ); Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnels museum; the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, in Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot, the Illegal Detention Camp Museum in Atlit, the Historical Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the museum at the memorial site for the fallen of the Israeli intelligence community. In addition, he was the house designer of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  Despite– or perhaps in light of– his long career of packaging history and culture into”visitable” attractions, Gafni should be seriously considered for a lifetime kitsch achievement award.

Of course, the idea of using multimedia to make history and heritage more exciting and attractive has always courted the danger that trivialization and entertainment would be the inevitable outcomes.  But now with immersive environments and interactive experience the watchwords of the museum biz, the Past– to paraphrase David Lowenthal’s famous epigram that “The Past is a Theme Park”–is well on its way to becoming a video game.

The following report from the Israeli daily Haaretz speaks for itself.  Gafni and his team of concept developers and exhibit designers who accepted money for this truly awful multimedia presentation ought to be ashamed of themselves.

From Haaretz – January 20, 2011

Experience the Warsaw Ghetto

Visitors to a new exhibit at the Yad Mordechai Museum can take a virtual train to a virtual death camp, and feel the cannon-fire in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Is the Disneyland approach the only way to interest today’s kids in Holocaust history?

By Yuval Saar

One of the first stops made by visitors to the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit in the Yad Mordechai Museum, in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, is the projection of a yellow star on their clothing. By moving your body, you put the virtual patch in the place where it belongs. It’s part of the concept of bringing viewers into the experience.

A day in the Virtual Holocaust: Yellow stars are projected onto museum visitors. Photo: David Gary

Later on, in order to peek at a model of the Warsaw Ghetto one takes a virtual journey on a railway car to a death camp. After the doors shut, with a realistic-sounding noise, the trip begins. A subwoofer speaker under the car simulates the sounds of traveling by train, while images of the ghetto, and then of the extermination camps, go past the barbed-wire-covered windows.

The freight car doesn’t actually move. Its “journey” leads to two of the exhibit’s high points.

The first is a huge, 1:100 scale model of the Warsaw Ghetto, with all the buildings as they were prior to its destruction. As stories from the ghetto are projected onto a background screen, walls and buildings in the model are lit in accordance with the narrative.

The second high point is the sound-and-light show of the main stages of the ghetto revolt and the recreation of a room in Mila 18, the famed bunker headquarters of the Jewish resistance. Against a background wall of burned bricks, the events play out, with museum visitors in the middle: Cannons fire shells, houses explode and fall down, guns are fired, planes are bombing, sirens, shouts and the crying of babies – fire and death all around. All in order to thrill audiences and make them part of the experience. The jury is still out as to whether this Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland, whose official public opening is tomorrow, is the only way to make the history of the Holocaust real to young viewers.

The Yad Mordechai Museum is not the first one in Israel or abroad to tackle the challenge of conveying history in a way that will grab the attention of today’s “instant thrills” generation, for whom the Holocaust is not a top priority. That is apparently also the reason that the museum staff often use words like “exciting,” “unique” and “experiences,” demonstrating a surrender to trends that are problematic at best, or populist at worst. A press release boasts that the new exhibit “has not yet been seen in museums that deal with the Holocaust in Israel and the world over.”

The designer of the exhibit, David Gafni, doesn’t hesitate to say that among his sources of inspiration were Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. “I wanted to cause people who come from far away to say that there’s something very special here that doesn’t exist anywhere else, something that’s impossible to send in a picture or by email,” he explains.

Read more– if you have the stomach to do so– by clicking here.

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2 thoughts on “Winner Announced: The Worst Museum Concept of 2011

  1. Wow. I was thinking that it’s too early to make such a pronouncement, but that was before I read the post — and tried to get through the article. That’s some stomach-turning kitsch.

    “When a group passes through and receives a patch [yellow star], they can feel as though they’re in the ghetto.” Really?

    Ugh. Ugh.

  2. Neil, revolting is an understatement. If they are going so far as to put yellow stars on guests, although virtually, why not project numbers to appear on arms while they are at it. I can see it already; the number changing as each visitor raises his or her arm to be virtually tattooed. I’m surprised that smell has not been added to make it more “real.” Of course, the stink would permeate the museum… but it certainly would add to a “real life” experience.

    Nary a photograph of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw — with its 250,000 graves and evidence of the long presence of Jews in Poland. That, at least, would give a real background to the destruction of a people, long a part of Polish society, and the horrors of Shoa.

    A new low in trivializing the unspeakable.

    Yuck!

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