Museum designer Ralph Appelbaum’s exhibits can draw people back to the past, pull them up to the stars, or tell stories so dark it takes a certain bravery to hear or see them.
With the Clinton Presidential Center, the New York designer, whose firm celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, again aims to put his audience “in a world they rarely have a chance to visit.”
Appelbaum’s daunting task (though surely his subject matter helped) was to make public policy exciting and government understandable and to “tell a story that in the daily news cycle gets smothered.” The impeachment story, then, is framed as a fight for power in a time of intense partisanship; life in the White House as a time in which American music and art were valued; the Clintons’ personal lives with a book they read to Chelsea.
Hired in 1999 along with the architectural team of Polshek and Partners, Appelbaum has designed exhibits for museums all over the world. Among them: the Rose Center in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Intel Museum of Technology in Santa Clara, Calif. He’s currently working on the Vietnam Visitor Center on the Mall in Washington to tell the story of that war to the generations born since, and a new Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave.
Assisting Appelbaum in the Clinton project: the former president himself, as well as people from the administration. Clinton’s contributions to his library are significant, from the symbolic (the bridge idea) to the big picture (the building’s sleek and light-admitting structure) to the details (photos and artifacts in the exhibits). He’s been called “curator-in-chief,” “editor-in-chief” and a “Renaissance client.”
Clinton suggested a three-step approach to present the events of his eight-year tenure, Appelbaum said, casting programs in terms of challenges, responses and results. This tack is used to inform visitors about Americorps, the Balkans, peace efforts in the Middle East, economic issues, and so on, in ways both broad and focused.
On the first exhibit level, a replicated Cabinet Room introduces the idea of how the president does his job. At the table are eight touch screen computers that allow visitors to learn how decisions are made at the highest level of government. There is an exhibit on the work of the vice president as well.
Beyond, a long exhibit hall fitted with alcoves on either side of an interactive timeline is meant to evoke the feel of a traditional library, but one is fitted with the latest computer technology to transmit information speedily.
Exhibits meet all levels of interest, Appelbaum said, with carefully crafted 20-minute videos to give a broad picture for those who choose to move on as well as touch screen computers for those who want to delve deeper into the subject at hand. The story is supported by audio of speeches and original documents marked up by the president in his own hand, papers that show “the depth of his engagement, his probing and questioning,” Appelbaum said.
Importantly, they make policy personal, with artifacts, correspondence and images of people whose lives were changed by Clinton’s ideas. Clinton often suggested people he’d met during his presidency: “He could not only remember these people,” an astonished-sounding Appelbaum said, “he could recount what they were doing right now, what their children were doing.”
While exhibits in the Holocaust Museum are “about the dark side of the human condition,” Appelbaum said, the Clinton project “is really about optimism and enthusiasm, that ideas can be put forward that capture a nation’s attention, that there’s a new way to create a road map.” The overall experience at the two museums is different, but “they are rooted in the same ethos”: to give a full and honest appraisal of a subject.
The president’s impeachment in 1998 consumes one alcove. The exhibit tells “in real detail … the politics of persecution, the independent counsel, the politics of personal destruction,” Appelbaum said. It places the event in the context of the time: a decade of partisanship and an “ideological battle that rejected compromise and forced government shutdowns,” Appelbaum said. The ever-expanding Whitewater investigation; the role of the anti-Clinton Arkansas Project and its billionaire backer, Richard Mellon Scaife; and Clinton’s struggle to govern in the face of the attack are part of the exhibit’s intention to tell “the whole story.”
The second exhibit level is dedicated to life in the White House, and it is here that visitors will see tables set for state dinners, the inside of Air Force One, a rock given the president by Nelson Mandela, a bike given Clinton by Lance Armstrong, the First Lady’s inaugural gowns. The exhibits note the entertainment brought to the White House: performances by Itzhak Perlman, Kathleen Battle, Placido Domingo and others. The temporary exhibit space is on this level; it will open with a show on the blues and music of the Delta. In the future, it could be used to highlight Clinton’s current projects conducted through his foundation.
The jewel of the second level is the Oval Office, a true-to-size replica that captures a day in the life of President Clinton’s tenure. “Every single inch” of the office was photographed to provide a complete replication right down to the personal items Clinton had about him.
Appelbaum said that Clinton hoped the Presidential Center and Park would give a feeling of connectedness, the “One America” he spoke of in closing the racial divide. The designer thinks it has achieved a certain seamlessness that invites the public to meet, study and become excited again about Democracy.
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