Sunday, September 21, 2014 · 2:04 a.m.
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The Chattanooga History Center inspires community engagement at first sight. (Artistic rendering: Ralph Appelbaum Associates)

The Chattanooga History Center has more in common with the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum than a mission to preserve the memory of a place or an event: The museums also share a visionary design team, with a few crucial local adjustments.

For the reimagined Chattanooga History Center—set to open in the fall of 2013—the capital campaign secured the services of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the New York-based design firm lauded as one of the most innovative groups in the industry.

Lesser known is the fact that the company was not originally on the short list of firms to whom Daryl Black, executive director of the Chattanooga History Center, sent an RFP—a request for proposal that organizations use to begin the bidding process for a new project.

After several museum trips and discussions, the capital campaign identified six design groups whose portfolios signaled they could translate the vision for the new center into a physical structure. Black had hesitated to send an RFP to Ralph Appelbaum Associates, thinking the firm would never consider a project so small, but at the urging of David Patten, secretary of the Chattanooga History Center’s board, Black sent the information north.

The request yielded enough interest to send a team to Chattanooga for a tour, a lengthy interview process and a formal presentation. Black remembered the instant spark of mutual intellectual perspectives between the firm’s content developer, Paul Williams, and project manager, Rick Sobel, and himself, who found common ground and excitement from the perspectives of a local historian, a non-native historian and an architect. 

Ralph Appelbaum Associates—a firm that receives dozens of RFPs each week and does not even give some of them a second look—won the bid and set to work developing a completely new model for a local history museum.

“I asked [Ralph Appelbaum], 'Why would y’all want to do a project this small?'” Patten said. “He said, ‘What you’ve got to understand, for us it’s not just about the money. It’s about the story, and from the American Indians to the revitalization of this great city, this is one of the most fascinating stories we’ve ever seen, and it needs to be told.’” 

The New York design firm also created the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. (Photo: Adam Fagen)

Planning the route
The first step was to answer the more practical questions of layout, Black explained. The design had to determine how visitors would move through the museum. The choices came down to the more traditional maze of smaller galleries sequenced along a specific narrative or a more open, art gallery-type space.

Then came the decision of which stories to use as exhibits. For these tricky choices, Ralph Appelbaum Associates relied on the local experts, including Black; Marlene Payne, deputy director of the Chattanooga History Center; Marie Bourassa, curator of collections of the Chattanooga History Center; and countless other professionals, interns and volunteers.

From a local point of view, Black said he knew what the major turning points were, but what he discovered in mapping the narrative of Chattanooga’s history was the way in which those locally important events intersected with the American history narrative. 

The development of the northern and southern railroad networks came together in Chattanooga during the 1840s and 1850s as the tracks cut a trail through the gap in the mountains. The community of freed slaves that was established before the Civil War and grew during the war provided a glimpse at post-emancipation America.

The industrial boom in the early 20th century that created the 13th-largest and second-most diverse economies in the country led to the pollution Walter Cronkite labeled the worst in America, but was in fact a reflection of the general pollution in the Western Hemisphere. 

“The opportunity to learn about the history of one place through time really helps you understand how things evolve,” said Ralph Appelbaum, owner of Ralph Appelbaum Associates. “Nothing happens by accident. You learn more about things that preceded critical events—tipping points, if you will—you really start to understand why the city looks the way it does today. For me, the whole experience was enlightening.”

Once the individual stories were selected, the team launched an exhaustive search for the photographs and physical pieces of history to display. The process extended beyond the Chattanooga History Center’s existing archives to the Library of Congress and is still unearthing surprising materials.

A leap to theory
One of the early points of connection between the Chattanooga contingent and the New York design team involved a shared historical pursuit. Over the last phase of his professional career, Black has began to explore the history of memory: Rather than studying history as concrete facts and the political, economic, cultural, religious and social factors that interacted to result in a concrete event, the local historian has began to examine how that event is remembered by those directly involved and those indirectly involved.

Williams shares a passion for the academic theory that originated with a 1966 essay by cultural critic Hayden White, which argues that history should be employed as a means to not only understand the past, but also create the future. History, then, is more than a group of static information; it becomes an interactive vehicle by which society can understand itself and how to create a path forward. 

The Chattanooga History Center will be an expression of that theory and, moreover, a chronicle of how Chattanooga has reinvented itself over and over.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates designed the Fossil Wall in the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo: Shinya Suzuki)

“Museums in general are not what they used to be; they are not static displays, we don’t just [put] rifles and headdresses up on walls and read text panels,” Appelbaum said. “We invited the local community to become a participant in their history. In a sense, this museum is an engine for this city to continue with its transformation.”

Black explained with an example of one of the narratives chosen to open a visitor’s trip. The route will start in a midsized traditional gallery with the story of the Trail of Tears. The exhibit will detail the sides of the debate from the Cherokee Nation camp and the U.S. government camp that ultimately led to the Native Americans' expulsion from the land. The gallery will be filled with photographs, primary documents and other classic pieces that museums use to tell a story.

Visitors will then move to one of three central galleries. There, beautifully open and lit spaces have been described as listening rooms where visitors sit and listen to a sound installation. The first involves present-day Cherokee people speak about how the Trial of Tears is remembered today and how they are striving to keep their language and culture alive.

The same pattern of traditional and listening galleries continues throughout the Chattanooga History Center, dealing in particular with the Civil War and segregation in Chattanooga.

“The takeaway is, ‘You’ve seen how the communities have made themselves—the decisions that resulted in the events and the consequences of those decisions,’” Black said. “‘Now, you as a citizen have the same future out there in front of you. It’s your responsibility to get involved, be an engaged citizen and make the future.’”

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