Visiting Het Grachtenhuis, the Canal House Museum in Amsterdam, was more like going to the theater than visiting exhibits. For me the magical presentation nearly overwhelmed the history. Someone less conscious of the funding required for all the bells and whistles might have immersed themselves better in the stories. Looking back over my photographs, I realize just how much information the creators packed into each space, and how evocatively.
The museum is itself a canal house, one of the hundreds of iconic townhouses lining Amsterdam’s 400-year-old waterways. The six galleries—or stage sets—conform to the building’s original room plan: they were spacious for domestic life, but small for immersive public spaces. Less than a dozen people in each tour group move from room to room, paced by timed multimedia presentations.
In most of the rooms, the inherent charm of dollhouse miniatures powered my delight and wonder. First, the city’s history played out in moving projections onto the walls of two foot tall buildings, along with audio narration and sound effects. Large images of prints and paintings spilled across multiple structures and onto the backdrop. Small animations of people moved across the facades, populating the street.
In another room, we walked down an aisle lined on either side with townhouses in various stages of construction. Moving mechanical models demonstrated how builders drove thousands timbers down through watery soil to support a floating city. Above our waists was street level, with three-foot-tall buildings; below that, lit in murky blue, a forest of pilings. “We’re standing in the canal!” I realized.
A scripted “meeting” played out on and around a life-size table and empty chairs. You heard a conversation about city planning among Amsterdam’s leaders while animated maps and drawings appeared projected on the table top.
Most magical of all: a five-foot-tall, freestanding canal house with lighted windows on all sides. Peer into those windows and you see tiny costumed actors, projected onto invisible scrims, playing out silent scenes. Elegant dancers in a ballroom, a woman bathing a baby. The scenes span centuries: a groovy family sprawls around a '70s room with macrame wall hangings.
One of my projects included a display similar to the city planning projection at Het Grachtenhaus. At the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, we conjured the dining room at a 19th-century luxury hotel. Some of the hotel’s white guests traveled to Niagara Falls with people they enslaved. The hotel’s Black waiters secretly aided enslaved people to cross the Niagara River into Canada. Our table-top animation conjured the waiter’s dual roles: highly choreographed table servers and secret Underground Railroad agents.
Custom produced media like this costs quite a lot. But it’s a powerful way to delight visitors, a kind of experience people remember. There are less expensive ways to invite visitors’ smiles and wonder. Here are some examples from other exhibits I’ve worked on.
Mark Twain playing with characters from his stories in a room of his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri.
Visitors peering through a hole in a "fence" for a kid's-eye-view of St. Louis's historic ballpark.
Shadow box scenes from the history of Tumacacori mission south of San Antonio, Texas.
Dramatic lighting on the mirror-bright surfaces of 19th-century daguerreotypes.