Behind the Design of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum

Photos by Jason O'Rear Photography
Photos by Jason O'Rear Photography

In setting out to design the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, our designers knew every aspect of the project had to be intentional. The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum’s mission is to teach the history of the Holocaust and advance human rights to combat prejudice, hatred and indifference. With such an important message, each element played an essential role in ensuring the mission is conveyed throughout.

Most important was that the building be a natural extension of the exhibits held within. In fact, the museum’s exhibits were designed prior to its exterior, a rare yet thoughtful design approach. Built in a “U” shape, with an angled copper and brick façade, the building teaches the museum’s lesson as well; the copper will change appearance over time, but it will endure, just like the people the museum teaches about.

Upon entering the building, visitors are greeted by a bright and open main lobby area where they are surrounded by their fellow visitors all experiencing the museum together. While the main staircase is dark and somber-looking, the rest of the space is vibrant and dynamic – exemplifying the museum’s dichotomy of darkness and light, hope and tragedy. The lobby flows to a private courtyard where guests can enjoy natural light, a beautiful sculpture and views of the copper façade that wraps the entire top half of the building. The lobby and courtyard are embraced by the building’s “U” shape as a comfort before and after guests experience difficult topics.

As guests enter the main exhibit, the ambiance shifts dramatically. The exhibits are windowless and dark, focusing all attention on the material being displayed. Visitors are first asked a question: why is this relevant? In exploring ways to answer that question, exhibits move from the history of Judaism to each country’s role in the Holocaust, the effectiveness of concentration and death camps, and conclude the Holocaust exhibit with stories of tragedy and survival.

In each subsequent exhibit, the spaces get lighter and more open, signifying a gradual shift from tragedy to hope. The second exhibit is the Human Rights Wing. Visitors are confronted with the world’s focus on human rights in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, followed by ten stages of genocide and real-world examples of each. Featuring abstract sculptures and graphic novels detailing each genocide, this gallery is a dramatic shift from the in-your-face nature of the Holocaust wing. Here, visitors are left trying to understand the stages of genocide and how they can still occur. The room’s maze-like design mimics this quest toward understanding.

Finally, the museum pivots to America, an exhibit highlighting the role of “upstanders,” those who rise and take a stand for human rights, fighting hatred and prejudice to make the world better. With bright colors and open space, this exhibit is a breath of joy following an intense educational experience. In designing this final learning space, visitors had to be given room to wander while they grapple with genocide and their own role in the world. In a true demonstration of the museum’s purpose, the final experiential component in the Pivot to America wing is a series of tablets that allow visitors to connect with non-profit organizations in the Dallas area even before leaving the museum.

The final stage of the exhibit is perhaps the most powerful. After facing the Holocaust, genocide and upstanders, visitors are given space to reflect. The last room in the main exhibit is a Memorial Hall, with a memorial stone and candles to honor the lost family members of the Dallas-area Jewish community and remember the millions of other lives lost in the Holocaust. The Memorial Hall embodies the juxtaposition of the building – a memorial for those who’ve perished, illuminated by a large window overlooking the courtyard and downtown Dallas, a view toward the future.

The main exhibit tour is an emotional journey that intentionally ends without answering the initial question of “why is this relevant?” Visitors are left to consider their own role in accomplishing the museum’s mission of combatting prejudice, hatred and indifference. From the detailed pattern on the staircase banister to the angular shape of the copper façade, it’s all about movement forward in a journey toward the future.

At OMNIPLAN, we have always striven to have a positive impact on the world around us, and we share that passion with the museum. The museum is already well on its way to helping Dallas evolve and transform, and we are proud to have helped create a space where the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum can continue to have a positive and lasting impact on our city. 


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