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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

Help exhibit visitors organize their experience

The Resistance Museum in Amsterdam has dramatic stories to tell about Dutch people living under Nazi rule during the Second World War. Some people kept their heads down, some supported the Nazis, and others worked against them. The Museum frames these stories pointedly: “Adjust, collaborate, or resist?” asks the introductory film (which you can see here.) The question appears again throughout the galleries, on the walls and even on the floor. The repetition underscores this main theme of the exhibit.

  • Object lesson: Provide visitors with an explicit framework for the information they’ll encounter in the exhibit. Repeat that framework with recurring language or design elements. It will help visitors to choose what to focus on and to remember what they learned.

Regrettably, that recurring question sinks under an onslaught of detailed stories, communicated mostly through text on the wall. Too many stories to track, too many dimly lit cases chock full of indiscriminately lit images and artifacts. The Museum suffers from overabundance, and compounds excess with a lack of prioritizing. Still, I learned, even though I left feeling a bit unaccomplished.

Along with the surplus of stories, two things made it hard to navigate the exhibit. When I entered a new area, I often had trouble finding a main header or text panel to help me understand the topic in that part of the exhibit. I had to start looking at objects and reading texts to find the commonalities. After some effort, I might figure out that this group of stories was about how the Nazi party infiltrated local government or how resistance groups sent secret messages. (photo credit:

  • Object lesson: A clear label hierarchy helps visitors grasp the exhibits’ topics and organization. More general and more important information gets bigger text, which visitors can easily see when they first enter a space. Specific examples and object interpretations get smaller text, meant to be read at closer distance.

Lighting design was another factor in my feeling overwhelmed in the exhibit. Lots and lots of wonderful artifacts filled the display cases. Like the text panels, though, there were no visual clues to help me prioritize where to look first. Some objects or documents in a case might relate more closely to a person’s experience, as told in a nearby text panel, but I had to examine everything there to identify the most relevant things.

  • Object lesson: Varying the intensity of lighting, even a little, can help visitors follow a story more easily. A slightly brighter light on one artifact in a case—the stroller with a hidden compartment—calls attention to the most compelling example of a topic. A room full of evenly lit cases puts all the burden on visitors to prioritize their time and energy.

There was plenty to enjoy, though, and some sections worked well for me. The first area after the film describes four social silos (or “pillars,” per the Dutch word verzuiling), which dominated Dutch culture before the invasion: Catholic, Protestant, Socialist, and liberal. Each is represented by a vertical case, prominently labeled. These groups provided a complete society for their members, segregating the nation and weakening its resistance.

A later section described the general strike of 1941, the only European mass protest against Nazi treatment of Jews. And a particularly dramatic case full of clandestine tools showed how resistance members communicated with one another.

Overall, a couple messages rose above the clamor for me, helped by the initial video’s framing. Ordinary people faced difficult choices every day under Nazi rule. Most often, resistance didn’t involve taking up arms: it meant saving ration coupons for people in hiding or ignoring the radio antenna in your neighbor’s living room.

The war’s effects linger in Dutch society. Their famed tolerance seems to me partly in response to the horrific segregation and genocide of Jews by the Nazis. Fewer people know about the Resistance Museum than the famous Anne Frank’s House, but both stand as effective memorials. “Never again.”


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