Just the location of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust makes it clear that it's doing something different. The museum itself is a series of sculptural concrete waves which are tucked almost imperceptibly into a hill of native grasses in Pan Pacific Park, near the Disney-fied architecture of the Grove shopping center. Inside, the walls curve around a series of video screens, back-lit photos and artifact installations. People wander the space in silence, listening intently to voices of Holocaust survivors, taking in what's possibly the most innovative museum experience in the city.
Founded in 1961, the museum is the oldest in the country devoted to the Holocaust. So when it moved into a new home, it also adopted new technology. With a collection that includes thousands of video interviews of local Holocaust survivors, the museum was a prime candidate for an interactive, multimedia experience. But it also needed a smart narrative. "Rather than recreate the Holocaust like every other Holocaust museum, we made it about content and personal stories relevant to L.A.," says Miles Kemp, president of Variate Labs, who designed the exhibits in collaboration with architect Hagy Belzberg and with New York-based Potion.
Visitors to the museum each get an iPod Touch equipped with headphones to wear throughout the experience. There are no printed captions on photos, nor are their lengthy descriptions of artifacts: For each exhibit or video, the visitor must dial in the exhibit number to get the audio. It's a bold move to force all visitors to use this technology, and I wondered how people who might not be comfortable with Apple touchscreens would react. "It's completely intuitive," says Kemp, demonstrating the interface. "80-year-old people have no problem using it. They love that the people are talking to them."
As I slip on my headphones I realize he's right: Hearing all the content conveyed through voices, not on written placards, gives the experience a dramatic intimacy. Instead of hiring actors to read the exhibit information, Kemp used L.A survivors, who recorded their voices themselves. The result is audio that's not overly polished or edited, which he thinks gives a sense of authenticity to the words.
By placing Los Angeles and its survivors squarely at the center, the museum becomes immediately relevant to its local audience. The narrative starts with a video of Jack Taylor, an American soldier from L.A. who liberated one of the first concentration camps. Clips about the war are cut from the Los Angeles Times, and a massive wall on Jewish culture focuses on entertainers and artists with L.A. ties. Throughout, the experience features L.A. survivors and artifacts owned by Los Angeles residents.
A centerpiece of the exhibition is a massive interactive table where a touchscreen interface allows visitors to sift through more than 25,000 images of Jewish life before the Holocaust. The images, black-and-white photos of weddings and family portraits, float up like they're surfacing in a large pool of water. You could spend an hour here flicking through photographs. Kemp shows me how the table can be operated in "curator mode," allowing docents to highlight and browse images in unison for school groups gathered around the table.
One of the most poignant moments is created in a room full of 18 kiosks, each one representing one of the concentration camps. Each kiosk presents stark facts about the camp it represents, like the number of people killed, but also lets visitors view video interviews from survivors and photos from the camps, humanizing the data. As I looked through images of camp life, I was surprised by the effectiveness of the narration in my headphones. Hearing the captions spoken, rather than reading them, allowed my eyes to focus more on the images themselves. Giving people this flexible, multimedia experience, Kemp hopes, will result in a more personalized—and more engaging—museum. "It enables people to stay longer since they're not on one linear path."
Like the museum experience, L.A.'s Holocaust story is still evolving. A final section, which is not yet completed, will feature more context about ongoing persecution and genocide throughout the world. Right now, survivors serve as docents, giving guided tours through the museum. But this won't always be the case, acknowledges Kemp, so they're working on creating a massive video wall where statements from survivors can be accessed through the iPod Touch system, effectively allowing visitors to tune in to any story. Variate Labs also built the content management system and trained the museum's archivist to digitize and upload new pieces into the system, helping them keep the collection as up-to-date as possible.
That flexibility is what makes the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust radically different. In essence, the museum exists completely in the cloud, and can be completely catered to your own personal interests. Ideally, says Kemp, the museum's content could become a mobile app that could live on your phone, allowing you to access the stories and images at home in order to engage more fully with the content. That would accomplish what all institutions want—to expand their experiences beyond the museum walls.