The Power of Museums

Posted on March 7th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes to us from Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

I was recently reminded of the power of museums.

On February 26 and 27, several colleagues and I travelled the 40 miles south to Washington DC for the convening of the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums. On Monday morning, the keynote address was from Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ms. Conwill’s address was at the same time casual and compelling. She went off script long enough to joke with her audience about Black Panther and stayed on message consistently enough to deliver quotations verbatim. She invoked prophets—biblical and modern—from Isaiah to Martin Luther King Jr., Amos to Abraham Joshua Heschel. She recommended books and movies and articles. She shared successes of her museum.

But it was a phrase all her own that gave me pause. I jotted it down in my notebook: “acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.”

In a story to punctuate acts of terror and fear, she described the demoralizing experience of a noose being found in the galleries at the NMAAHC, in the same general time-period as the nation watched white supremacists in Charlottesville chant “Jews will not replace us” while marching with tiki torches.

As one, those assembled held our breath as we shook our heads in dismay. She told us about where and how the noose was found, and what the response was from her staff. And then she went on to relate the feeling of watching museum colleagues—from the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Museum of National History, Air and Space, American History, National Gallery, and others, march up the National Mall to stand in solidarity with her and her colleagues.

She described the warmth of the day and the warmth of her heart knowing that museums exist, in part, to stand against the kind of cowardice that would leave a symbol of fear and violence in a public space. I could feel myself and my fellow audience members exhale our held breath. The reality of the noose was still with us, but our response, as museum professionals and as human beings, restored hope.

The story was real for me. It evoked strong emotion.

It was nothing compared to what I experienced the next day.

On Tuesday, I started my day at the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum. 

On an abbreviated docent-led tour of the Museum, I was struck by the presentation of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were destroyed. The USHMM displays the remnants of a stained glass window from a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht along with large scale before and after photos of the sanctuary.* I was struck by the well of emotion the object invoked in me.

Later in the day, I attended Ms. Cornwill’s museum, the National Museum of African American Culture and History. 

In the section about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, I made a point to look closely at the photos of the four girls who were lost, and then as I turned a corner, I was confronted once again by broken stained glass. The NMAAHC displays fragments of a window destroyed by the bomb that took those four children’s lives.**

Acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.

A small shudder ran up my spine. If Kinshasha Cornwill’s words gave me pause, these two stained glass windows, exhibited in museums on the same National Mall, made it real. In that shudder, I was reminded of the truth of the proposition of museums: things matter; experience is not the same as information.

In that shudder, I was strengthened in the hope and the conviction that museums can be a part of the change I want to see in the world.

More and more, our museum colleagues are realizing that though what we do is not partisan, it is political. Our visitors are not just learning information for their own use and edification. They are living experiences that, if we do it right, help them to become better human beings. With a nod to our colleagues at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, if we do it right, our visitors will not be bystanders but upstanders. I look forward to continuing to walk this path at JMM.

 

*From the USHMM: “The shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue after its destruction on Kristallnacht.” More info here.

**From the NMAAHC: “Stained glass from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was donated by our colleagues Ann Jimerson (1963 Kids in Birmingham) and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (SNCC veteran). Learn more here.”

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How Do I Connect?

Posted on March 1st, 2018 by

A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

This week, I, along with a few staff members travelled back and forth to Washington D.C. to attend the CAJM (Council for American Jewish Museums) 2018 Annual Conference. The conference was a three-day event, designed to give professionals working in Jewish cultural organizations and institutions the opportunity to learn best practices in the museum field, visit museums and meet and schmooze with new and old friends. The conference is still fresh in my brain, so I wanted to share some thoughts. One of the main takeaways that I like to think about at conferences is: how do I connect with the speakers and places that we visit?

Day One started off with a downtown walking tour led by our friends from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. We learned about the first synagogue building built in 1876 in our Nation’s Capital, Adas Israel; and learned about the congregation’s eventual move to the suburbs.

The original building is currently on stilts in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown DC; waiting to go on its final journey to the future campus of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

After the walking tour, we went to where the conference was being held inside Adas Israel’s second synagogue building, now known as Sixth & I. The building has gone through numerous transformations from a Conservative synagogue, an African Methodist Episcopal Church to a hub for both synagogue and community space.

Sixth & I has a reputation in that they provide a space for impactful and provocative programs spanning different Jewish cultural traditions.

I found the history of the building to be similar to the history of the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

I was happy to see so many old friends and colleagues at CAJM – and at one point I counted 10 people that I knew that had an association with the JMM at some point during their professional careers.

Day Two was held at The Wilson Center where the keynote speaker was Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. She spoke eloquently about our responsibilities as museum professionals as we tell the story of our culture and heritage.

She quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.” How is that for a takeaway!

I participated in Talking Circles on specific topics of Israel and Audience Engagement. These activities allowed us to share what we do in our instituitions and hopefully gives other inspiration and ideas to take back to their own institutions.

Day Three was held at the USHMM – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The day started off with a guided tour of the museum, something that I had never done before. I have been to the museum many times but always went through the galleries by myself. As we walked along the corridors with the docent, I looked down and I noticed the cobblestones and then I read a sign that indicated that the stones were part of the cobblestones of the streets inside the Warsaw Ghetto. 

I literally had chills going down my spine.

Our final visit was to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I was amazed at the beauty of the building on the outside.

I was so excited to go inside and was blown away by the exhibits and the information presented on the inside.  My experience inside those walls was incredible. I found myself going through waves of emotions, and finding many commonalities in our shared experiences, both the Jewish and the African American experience.

Our last stop was the museum shop, and once again, I found another connection to our shared experiences.

When our son Guy was a baby, he received a book called More, More, More by Vera B. Williams and there is a short chapter in the book called Little Guy.

I was transported back to reading the book to our son when he was a baby, and how 23 years later he has grown to be such an incredible person. I was very happy that I found this small piece of my own story inside the museum.

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Museum Musings From Poland

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

I was privileged to spend ten days in Poland on a trip sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums with five colleagues from Jewish museums from across the country. During our trip we visited many museums where we explored the different ways that Poles interpret their complex (and often tragic) history. We also had ample opportunity to meet with staff at these museums and to discuss their interpretive strategies as well as to engage in conversation about the difficult task they face in commemorating the history of Polish Jews in a broader context than just the Holocaust.

Here are some highlights from our museum visits:

Museum of the City of Warsaw:

Our first day included a tour of the Old City of Warsaw where we learned about how the city was nearly completely demolished by the Nazis in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising. The Museum of the City of Warsaw occupies several reconstructed town homes in the Old City. Rather than detailing the city’s history through text panels and recreated spaces, the museum makes innovative use of models, timelines and charts to identify keep events and periods in the city’s history.

Models of the city of Warsaw

A beautifully designed exhibit showcases artifacts, but rather than grouping items in chronological order, they are displayed according to type so that one room houses postcards while another, silver and so on.

My favorite gallery was devoted to mermaids which is the symbol of Warsaw.

Our group of museum professionals was impressed with the clean design of the displays and the interpretive strategy in which one selected object in each case is highlighted. The minimal amount of text allowed for a greater appreciation of the objects.

POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews:

Being able to visit this recently opened museum was one of the impetuses for the trip. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s chief curator and advisor to the director, is an advisor to CAJM and was instrumental in helping to develop our trip itinerary. In preparation for our visit, we read several articles about the museum’s guiding principles and participated in a conference call with Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The museum is immense and includes a resource center, educational program space, temporary exhibition gallery and café. We were most appreciative of the opportunity to meet with several of the museum’s staff, including its executive director and education director and were guided through the core exhibit by its co-curator, Joanna Fikus, who shared fascinating insight into how the exhibit came together.

The Museum is located within the boundaries of where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood and its entrance is adjacent to a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that was erected in 1948.

The museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the entire 1,000 year span of Jewish history in Poland and to highlight the extent to which Jewish history and Polish history are intertwined. The galleries are filled with multi-media displays and interactive stations that provide layers of interpretation and engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Despite the three hours we had allotted to tour the exhibit, we still did not have enough time to see everything.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is stepping into a recreated wooden synagogue that was built with the assistance of an American workshop – a video explaining the construction process can be found HERE.

Praga Museum

A very different kind of museum experience awaited at the Praga Museum within an old Jewish quarter in Warsaw that survived the destruction of World War II. Unlike the other museums where we received guided tours, at the Praga we were left to wander on our own as we encountered dimly rooms filled with a variety of quirky displays interpreting the history of the neighborhood, juxtaposed with contemporary art installations exploring issues such as multiculturalism and geographical boundaries.

I felt right at home seeing a case filled with sewing machine and tailor implements, just like in Voices of Lombard Street.

The museum is housed in a former townhouse that once contained a private shul. The museum has uncovered fresco fragments from the shul that visitors can view.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Book of Names

Our day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau was difficult and exhausting as we waited in lines and navigated crowds to enter different barracks that house museum displays (daily attendance at the camp can reach as high as 11,000 visitors). We had difficulty finding the personal stories that are so essential to understanding the Holocaust because the interpretation is from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims. A recently opened exhibition in Block 27 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial, seeks to address this issue by displaying photographs and films of pre-war Jewish communities and an enormous book listing names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust that visitors can peruse. This was an especially emotional experience for several members of our group who found listings of family members who perished during the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Jewish Center

A display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

I first learned about the Auschwitz Jewish Center when the JMM hosted the exhibition A Town Known As Auschwitz last year. The museum preserves and interprets the rich pre-war Jewish history of Oswiecim (the Polish name of the town) and also includes the only synagogue in town that was not destroyed during World War II.

The only surviving synagogue.

While there are no Jews living any longer in Oswiecim, the museum serves as an important educational and cultural center. We had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s director who talked about how his staff works to teach visitors that there is more to Polish Jewish history than the Holocaust. We found our visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center an especially meaningful way to end our day spent in Auschwitz and as we ate dinner in a charming restaurant in the town that has become synonymous with the Holocaust, we discussed the importance of making all Poles understand the extent to which Polish Jewish heritage is an integral part of their history.

Galicia Jewish Museum

Our last two days were spent in Krakow, the center of Jewish renewal in Poland, where we learned about the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was left largely intact (the Wawel Castle served as the residence for the Governor of the General Government, Hans Frank) and its Jewish quarter contains six restored synagogues. Krakow also hosts an annual summer Jewish festival that attracts thousands of people. The Galicia Jewish Museum has been one of the leading institutions in the city’s Jewish renaissance. Our visit to the museum was the perfect way to bring our week to a close as we met with the museum’s director, deputy director and one of their board members. The Museum’s mission is to educate visitors that the Holocaust did not just happen at Auschwitz (so many visitors to Poland stop only at Auschwitz-Birkenau during their stay) and also to continue the story of Jewish history in Poland post-1945 during the communist regime and into the present. 40% of the museum’s visitors are non-Jewish, a reflection of the interest in non-Jews in learning about Jewish culture and history. As at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, we heard about their focus on working with the non-Jewish community as a means of gaining their assistance in preserving Jewish heritage in small towns and cities throughout the country.

We toured the museum’s temporary exhibit The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rwyka from the Lodz Ghetto, a beautifully designed installation featuring original artifacts and interactive stations that reinforced the concept of how focusing on individual stories can bring to life the history of the Holocaust in such meaningful ways.

The core exhibit Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland showcases color photographs by Professor Jonathan Webber and Chris Schwarz from the past 30 years documenting what remains of Jewish life in Polish towns. The exhibit powerfully reminds visitors that in order to learn about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it is important to look beyond Auschwitz and to visit small towns that once housed vibrant Jewish communities.

I arrived in Poland expecting to learn about the tragic history of its Jewish community in order to enrich my work at the JMM and also to bear witness to the loss of a culture. I was not prepared to visit such a broad array of museums that provide fascinating insight into Poland’s complex and nuanced history. I was inspired by the work that these amazing institutions and individuals are engaged in to ensure that Jewish Polish history is preserved in meaningful ways.

Read more about Deborah’s trip over at JMore: “Touring Poland Was ‘Life-Changing Experience'”

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