A tale of two museums

23.04.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
This past year, I visited two strangely related museums: the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, USA, and the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary. Both museums are in historically significant buildings. Both deal with human oppression. Yet the experiences couldn’t have been more different. Let me share them with you.

The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
The NCRM opened in September 1991 as an extension built onto the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine was where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, 1968. The actual motel rooms used by Dr. King and his entourage represent the culmination of the museum's semi-chronological history of the civil-rights movement.


The National Civil Rights Museum built onto the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King's assassination.

The color scheme of the museum is drab – mostly brown and gray with dirty orange and a dusty blue for contrast. I was reminded of the colors perceived by folks who are colorblind. Perhaps this was a conscious decision. Nevertheless, the result is ugly. Worse still, the exhibits feature more flat paper reproductions of photos and newspapers, and more text than any other museum I have ever visited.

Because picture-taking was not allowed, please check out the museum’s own link:

Oddly, the disappointingly few physical artifacts were hardly labeled at all. I guess that the gaudy uniform once belonged to Marcus Garvey, but, well, this is just a guess.

The physical layout created numerous bottlenecks for the visitors. At one point, the whole place seemed so claustrophobic that I just wanted to get out. Happily I stuck it out and saw Dr. King’s motel room, which was exceptionally moving.

Across the street, the museum has a second exhibition in the boarding house where James Earl Ray, King’s presumed assassin stayed. But since admission to the second section required going back across the street to check my camera (but not my phone), I decided I’d had enough and left.

Too monochromatic. Too many words. Too boring.

I’m a child of the 50s. I grew up in St. Louis where the civil-rights movement and desegregation played major roles in my world. Yet I left the civil-rights museum without any particularly meaningful feelings (except with regard to the hotel room), and didn’t feel I had learned very much.

Information overload, plain and simple.

I was accompanied by a friend who is younger and has a very different demographic background. Yet his impression of the museum “experience” was virtually identical to mine.

Here's a YouTube video with the Museum's director, Beverly Robertson. Apart from a few artifact displays (and two busses), notice the amount of text there is in the exhibits:

A brief description of video codecs
Video codecs compress television images so that they can be transmitted over great distances, on smaller bandwidths. The MPEG 4 algorithm takes the 24 frames-per-second of broadcast video and analyses the content. Unless movement is perceived, a codec will only refresh a pixel once every two or three frames.

What this means is, if you watch a football game, the pixels containing players and the ball will be transmitted almost all of the time. But the grass will only be transmitted a third of the time. Because players are important and grass isn’t.

So why do I mention this? Because the National Civil Rights Museum couldn’t distinguish between players and grass. The curators included every scrap they could dig up and they exhausted my cognitive bandwidth. A little MPEG 4 or feng shui would have gone a long way.

If it were up to me, I’d start over. I hope they will someday. How sad that such an important project was allowed to go so very wrong.

Terror Háza - The House of Terror, Budapest
Hungary had a disasterous 20th century. Most Central European nations did. But I didn’t really appreciate the plight of the Hungarians until I visited the House of Terror in Budapest.

Andrássy út (Andrassy Street) is Budapest’s finest avenue, leading from the center of Pest to the magnificent Hero’s Square and the city park at the other end. Of the street’s many notable buildings, number 60 is also the most notorious.


The House of Terror at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary

In 1937, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis), leased the building, which was dubbed the “House of Loyalty.” In 1944, when the Arrow Cross assumed control of the government, the House of Loyalty quickly became known as the House of Terror. After the defeat of Germany in 1945 and up to 1956, the building housed two murderous Communist organizations, the ÁVO and ÁVH. Both groups had offices above ground and cells and torture chambers in the basement.

The political persuasion of the occupiers - fascist or communist - made no difference whatsoever. Officers serving at Andrássy út 60 were masters of life and death.

In February 2002, the building was reopened as a museum, the exhibitions designed by the multitalented architect, Attila F. Kovács.

Once again, photography was not allowed, but do check out the gallery pages on the museum’s questionably structured website:

The outside façade has been restored to its pre-war glory. But the roof has been equipped with a metal “eyebrow.” When the sun is high in the sky, the ominous word “Terror” appears as a black shadow along the front.

Inside, the metaphors continue – with barely a written word to be found, or indeed needed. Instead, a simple descriptive sheet can be taken from a holder in each room. I collected these and skimmed them during my visit, saving them to read in detail later.

One of the most moving rooms was a long rectangular space with rough-hewn planks along the walls. The rug on the floor was a map – I entered the room in western Hungary. Along the walls, video screens show black-and-white movies of Hungarians anno 1950. Soft music plays in the background.

As I made my way through the room, I suddenly noticed that all the screens had changed to show a desolate landscape moving past, as though past the window of a train. The music had changed to the clackity-clack of the rails. I was in a boxcar being transported to a Soviet work camp. The map on the rug showed my progress.

I think this room is known as the "Gulag Room." I found a brief clandestine video of it on YouTube, but unfortunately without the train effects:

The entire museum was one of personal discovery. It encouraged me to read more about Hungarian history. And it was tremendously frightening, despite the elegantly simple exhibits.

So why are these museums so different?
Only 11 years separate them in terms of age. Yet the National Civil Rights Museum is a catastrophe and the House of Terror is an artistic and educational triumph. Perhaps it’s because the NCRM tries so hard to provide a complete picture while the HoT lets our imagination do much of the work.

Could it be that we should be viewing more interactive media (e.g. websites) as voyages of discovery rather than merely informational repositories? Naturally, if we just want to know when a restaurant is open, the good experience lies in our ability to get this information fast.

But maybe we need to think about moving a little slower once in a while. For example at http://www.wordsatplay.com

What do you think?