NEW YORK -- For most Americans, Motown means an infectious beat and great rhythm-and-blues singing. That's the Motown story: one hit after another coming out of Berry Gordy's talent factory.
Ralph Appelbaum sees it a little differently. "Clearly there's the story of Berry Gordy," he says. "But there's also the story of Detroit, which was a terminal of the Underground Railway and of the northern migration in the 20th century."
Mr. Appelbaum sees a few other stories as well. There's the story of black entrepreneurship, for example. "Motown was the largest black-owned business in America, and created more black millionaires than any other company," he says.
And the music? "The entry point is music," he says. "But the real story is tracing the civil rights struggle in the music business."
Mr. Appelbaum has some narrative decisions to make. Then he will have to translate them into concrete, glass and steel for the Motown Museum, which will occupy the former Motown studios in Detroit.
He is a storyteller, although not in the usual sense. His company, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, situated in Manhattan, is the largest company in the country devoted exclusively to developing and designing exhibitions for museums.
Most of the company's projects are for history and science museums, which in the last 15 years have come around to the view that their artifacts should be used to tell a compelling story and impart a memorable experience rather than simply to be spread out in glass cases.
But many newer museums are not based on collections at all. Instead, they dramatize a historical event or trend, like the Japanese migration to California, or trace the development and influence of an idea, like freedom of the press. These new-wave institutions are also known as single-subject museums, and Appelbaum Associates has emerged as the leading exhibit designer for them.
Mr. Appelbaum used the storytelling approach to spectacular effect in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, working historical artifacts, videotaped testimony by Holocaust survivors and written texts into an interior design that takes visitors on a compelling historical journey that, in theory, few should be willing to make.
Instead, the exhibition has been so successful that the museum has been mobbed from the moment it opened its doors. Visitors, 60 percent of whom are non-Jewish, spend an average of three hours going through the exhibition.
"The Holocaust museum is sheer brilliance," said J. Michael Carrigan, the chief of exhibitions at the National Museum of American History in Washington. "I don't think I've seen anyone use the written word and videos to such advantage. When you look at the museum, there aren't that many artifacts, but he has used them to advantage, putting them in settings and surrounding them with living history."
The field of exhibition design embraces a wide variety of practitioners. It includes companies that produce jazzy commercial displays for trade shows or corporate offices and companies that create exhibits for small museums on a tight budget. At the top end are design studios that create ambitious exhibitions for major museums and corporations, like Edwin Schlossberg Inc., which is designing Sony Wonder, a technology museum in Sony Plaza in Manhattan.
Appelbaum Associates is unusual in taking on only nonprofit work, usually for museums of history, ethnology or natural science. Recent projects have included the American Immigrant Museum of Honor at Ellis Island and the Jewish Museum in New York, several visitor centers for the National Park Service and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Recently, the company was named to design the Museum of African-American History in Detroit.
Two of the largest projects that the company has in hand are the new dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History, which are scheduled to open next year, and the Newseum, a proposed $28 million museum on newspapers and freedom of the press in Arlington, Va., commissioned by the Freedom Forum, a foundation endowed by the Gannett Co.
Appelbaum Associates is also planning a Newseum exhibit that will allow visitors to use news wire reports from all 50 states to produce a newspaper front page.
Mr. Appelbaum's services do not come cheap. His fee is 20 percent to 30 percent of a project's budget, which is double or triple the typical architect's fee.
He oversees a staff of 60 architects, designers, engineers, model makers, researchers and writers who split off into teams for each project. On one floor of the company's Manhattan loft space, designers generate computer images of proposed installations. Overhead, on a shop floor, the images are turned into tabletop models and finally large-scale models, which suggest stage sets, although not to Mr. Appelbaum.
"I never think of it as set design," he said. "I think of it as interior architecture that extends the story. It's the act of controlling a few hours of someone's time and setting them up to receive certain experiences."