Museum lighting case study: How a single exhibit embodies an impactful mission
March 10, 2022
March 10, 2022
How does lighting design enhance the experience at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum?
Looking through a fissure in time. Opening the mind to the atrocities therein. Making Upstanders out of Bystanders. A single exhibit embodies the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum’s objective—to teach the history of the Holocaust and advance human rights to combat the prejudice, hatred, and indifference that is so rampant in our world today.
I was honored to be a part of this awe-inspiring and relevant project as the lighting designer for the permanent exhibits housed within this new 55,000-square-foot facility in Dallas, Texas. This museum is unique among the 21 Holocaust-related museums in the US. It not only focuses on the Holocaust and worldwide genocides (including those here at home) but it also sheds light on American ideals versus American realities—teaching, asking questions, and demanding introspection in the hopes of shifting perspectives.
Simply put, a successful lighting design supports the objectives of the exhibit it illuminates. It enhances the experience, guides the visitor, and sets the mood for the emotional journey. It also must provide sufficient illumination to read the text while maintaining light levels within the conservational targets of the artifacts on display. Each gallery—Holocaust/Shoah, Human Rights, Genocide, and Pivot to America—uses lighting differently to achieve these goals.
To start, the visitor needs a background on which to build their understanding. The experience begins in the Orientation Theater, where visitors hear the story of Abraham and the beginning of the Jewish religion.
Visitors enter an intimate theater on the first floor to view a movie that prepares them for their journey through the permanent exhibition. After exiting the theater into a three-story stairwell, visitors learn more about the Jews, the history of anti-Semitism, and what Jewish life was like in Europe before the Holocaust. These stories are told through videos shown on the first- and second-floor landings. There is also a mural of photos taken before the start of World War II of local survivors and their families.
Lighting guides visitors along their way up the three flights of stairs, shifting color and intensity in conjunction with the media presentations. The lighting provides the visual cues that tell them when to walk up to the next landing and when to stand still and watch a video. Here, light plays a tactical and functional role: Direct and cue the guest.
Next, visitors exit through a door on the third floor, entering the permanent exhibition. Here, light equals emotion. The Shoah gallery presents the Holocaust in terms of its geographical genesis. It begins in Germany and moves through western Europe, eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, central Europe, and the neutral countries. The Shoah exhibit’s opening is a creamy white, crystal-clear palette. The surrounding slowly transforms into darker values as the visitor moves deeper into the exhibit and settles at its darkest in the concentration camp presentation.
Proceeding through the Death Marches corridor, the dark palette lightens as visitors move into the liberation area. The changing light level should correlate with the emotions the visitors are likely to experience.
Visitors step from the Death Marches into Liberation. Here, they explore the International Military Tribunal and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), including the stories of Rene Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt—in lighting that is bright and hopeful. Light levels are on average 20% to 30% brighter in this section than they are in the Shoah area.
Just beyond the walls of the UDHR is a depiction of worldwide genocides, presented in the context of the Ten Stages of Genocide, as developed by Dr. Gregory Stanton. Ten floor-to-ceiling islands, each representing a historical genocide, confront the visitor. Lighting is dappled and shadowy. It alternately highlights select items and creates shadows that magnify them. My goal was to help visitors grasp the emotional magnitude of the genocides while learning to identify each of the 10 stages. The ability to recognize the start of the first stage is taught as the first step to preventing future genocides.
The changing light level should correlate with the emotions the visitors are likely to experience.
The last stop is the Pivot to America exhibition. Here, the comparison is between American ideals and American realities, with the aim of inspiring a response to today’s moral and ethical issues. This is the first gallery that introduces vibrant color into the exhibit design. It begins with the American flag’s red, white, and blue, which has the dual effect of enlivening the experience and engaging the visitor. In this gallery, I uniformly illuminated the walls to support the environment created by the exhibit designers, which is different than any other in the permanent gallery.
This room is full of interactive touch panels that engage the visitor in exercises that round out their knowledge of American “upstanders” and challenge them to become upstanders as well. Light is relegated to the walls in this gallery, allowing the screens in the center of the room to become the focal point.
The final stop in the Pivot to America exhibit is the Memorial and Reflection Room. An elegant room, it provides a space for discussion and an occasion for visitors to remember those who perished in the Holocaust, to honor Dallas-area survivors and their families, and to reflect on their museum experience. The Memorial and Reflection Room is the only permanent gallery space with daylight.
The design process for this project was educational, inspiring, and sobering.
The museum team was comprised of true scholars and thinkers, as well as activists and teachers. There was more than one meeting where I had to look away from the documentation we were discussing and take a deep breath to try to maintain my professionalism in the face of heartbreakingly horrific stories. However, the museum team did not want this experience to be overly dramatic, dismal, or depressing for visitors. The design team made a concerted effort to treat the subject matter with clarity of purpose and objectivity, which translated into a directive for the lighting, too.
My goal was to support and enhance the exhibit content and create spaces that are intentionally lit, impacting visitors on both emotional and intellectual levels. They can absorb the material at their own pace.
Learn more about the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.