Analyzing the Spatial Design of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

For this assignment, I decided to analyze the spatial design of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum located in Washington, D.C. The first time I visited, this museum easily became one of my favorite buildings due to how intentional and thoughtfully designed it was, both inside and out. With such a serious subject matter, the architect James Ingo Freed wanted the building to work in harmony with the exhibits rather than just be a shell to host them. His design choices were heavily inspired by the historical Holocaust sites he visited, which is immediately recognizable without even having researched the design of the building. 

I would say this space is characterized by heavy juxtaposition between light and dark, big and small, and heavy and light. The materials used in this space are mostly industrial, giving off a dark and cold vibe, but contrasted with heavy natural light that is utilized in different ways throughout the museum. Navigating this space is extremely easy as the exhibit follows a path starting on the top floor and ending back on the ground floor. Walking through the exhibit itself  is very dark, the only lights present highlighting the artifacts and information displayed behind glass. A lot of the exhibit actually utilizes replicas and original artifacts in an immersive way, such as having visitors walk along casts of German roads made from the headstones taken from Jewish cemeteries and running the path through an actual train car that once held an unimaginable amount of people who were being taken to concentration camps. This train car design choice was one of the most impactful for me as this route is unavoidable, forcing visitors to enter it and reflect on the thousands who once stood in that very same place. They intentionally keep the train car unlit to accurately display it within a historical context. Between each exhibit floor, visitors leave extremely dark rooms and enter into a buffer zone of all white walls and floors as well as entirely glass ceilings to bring in light. These between spaces are meant to bring you back into the present for a second for a period of reflection before continuing on into the next part of the exhibit. The different rooms you enter throughout the exhibit also play with perspective. Some extremely large rooms are entirely focused on one thing, such as the empty room featuring just the shoes once having belonged to holocaust victims and another room with high ceilings featuring photos from the lives of holocaust victims. These rooms make you feel so small compared to the thousands represented through shoes and the photos continuing so high up the wall that you can’t even see them all. There is not a single thing I would change about this building as it was so clearly intentional and respectful in its design. 

You can read more about the architecture and art of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here: