Yesterday I visited two museums here in Dallas, The Sixth Floor Museumwww.jfk.org/inside.htm and the Dallas Holocaust Museum www.dallasholocaustmuseum.org/ (that last site is very modest, but in a sense that suits the museum — as I’ll explain). I was impressed with both of them, and they got me to thinking — as I did after we went to Valley Forge — about how books relate to the other ways young people get information.
The impressive thing about both museums is how they understood their physical space and made best use of it. Like all musuems these days, they each had an audio tour that gives you a voice over related to specific places. But they also recognized that a museum is a physical space — it is a kind of stage set — as you walk through it you not only see what is on the walls, you experience the place. And that means the designers have to understand the space they have. A Museum is a three-dimensional, not a two-dimensional experience. The Sixth Floor Museum is located in the School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. The show takes you through that space, with information on the Kennedy presidency, until you get to the corner window, filled with boxes, which Oswald used as his perch.
The Sixth Floor Museum has a large horizontal space, the Holocaust Museum a small space, a corner of a building. They use that to their advantage. Instead of echoing the museums in Washington or Jerusalem, they focus on one day — when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place, when three young men stopped a cattle car and freed over two hundred Jews, and when, in Bermuda, the allies decided that they could not help the Jews. That tight focus is perfect use of their space.
So what is the similar "space" of a book? It is the trim size, the page count, it is the two-dimensional experience the author invites you to enter. In many ways the illustrated nonfiction book for younger readers is the model of the museum — an immersion in a visual field where words and images tell a story. But is there anything we can do in books to make use of the audio of museums, and physical experience of walking through them?
Yes, if our books are designed to work with web sites — where the book becomes a kind of catalog for a show that exists in the digital world. I think we should all aim towards that. But, in the meantime, lets talk about the immersive space of a book. Stay tuned.