Even before she received her doctorate, my wife and I worked together on museum exhibits. It's been thirty-odd years now since Melissa took possession of that hard-earned degree, and we have long since become a team. Of course she does all the really difficult stuff—the research, fundraising, overall management of the project—while I find time here and there to do the writing—label copy, panel copy, overall exhibit script. I haven't made much money doing this, but it's been one of the great joys of my life to work with the woman I love on something that matters so much to both of us.
Still it is work. When Melissa and I visit a museum, we never really get to just enjoy ourselves the way we did when we first met. Now we critique all that we see, judging whether or not the curator and her team have successfully communicated whatever it is they set out to communicate. Part of this, of course, involves studying the exhibit itself, its design and label copy, the way in which it has been ordered and mounted. But truth be told we spend almost as much time observing visitors to an exhibit as we do looking at the exhibit itself, watching the way they move through the galleries, noticing which objects they choose to look at and which they choose to ignore. What is interesting (and distressing if you're an exhibit's designer or its script writer) is that most people, at best, look at maybe half the displays in an exhibit, and read the label copy for even fewer than that. Imagine trying to communicate all the ideas and character nuances in a 400-page novel knowing full well that your audience at most will pick (entirely at random) only about 200 of its pages to read. That is the dilemma faced by the modern exhibit curator and her writer.
Unless, of course, you work for the National Holocaust Museum.
I visited Washington's Holocaust Museum for the first time last winter. I have walked through and studied scores of museums in my life, but I have never seen anything like the visitor response I witnessed that day. In museums today, people tend to talk quietly among themselves as they walk through the galleries, and if they happen to pass through one full of, say, Andy Warhol paintings or showbiz memorabilia, their voices will rise and you will hear occasional laughter. But there was no laughter in the Holocaust Museum that day. People did not talk, they did not whisper. They studied the objects, they read the labels, they seemed to pass over nothing. But for the quiet shuffling of feet, the rooms were entirely silent, still. There was something almost holy about that silence, certainly something sober, respectful, and full of awe.
On Monday, January 6, at 6:30 p.m., Martin Weiss, a docent at the Holocaust Museum and a survivor of Auschwitz, will speak at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library. Mr. Weiss is an impassioned and inspirational speaker who feels it is important for the world today that he share what he knows about the horrors (and heroism) of the Holocaust. I wouldn't miss his talk for the world. I hope you will join us.