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.


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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Intern Thoughts: A Weekly Response

Posted on August 4th, 2016 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked interns to respond to Edward Rothstein’s article The Problem with Jewish Museums, which we asked them to originally read and discuss during their orientation back in June. This week they need to reflect back as well as read a number of responses to that article before articulating their own.  

Would the Refugees Agree with Rothstein?

The author of “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” Rothstein, has clearly visited and dissected more Jewish and Holocaust museums than I. Some of his critiques, such as Jewish museums emphasizing Jews who succeeded based on American ideals rather than Jewish ones, are likely true. However, some of his observations, even if true, I don’t view in a negative light. As one response noted, thousands of Jewish museums exist around the world, and hundreds in America. They can’t, and shouldn’t, all emphasis the same points and ideas. Rothstein criticizes both Jewish museums that function as a “Jewish morgue” by emphasizing artifacts and supposedly ignoring continuity, as well as museums that focus too much on “universalizing” the Jewish experience and providing warnings about the future. Perhaps if he believes Jewish museums only focus on one or another, I understand the critique. However, what’s the problem with some museums focusing on the Jewish past without focusing on the present? What’s wrong with the Tolerance Museum, which doesn’t call itself the “genocide” museum, focusing on exactly what it’s focused on, intolerance of all kinds and degrees?

To his point about Holocaust Museums relating the Holocaust to other genocides, he includes the line “hey, you have to pay attention, this isn’t just about us,” as a negative. I disagree. Museums about genocide should understand more than anyone both how terrible and how possible genocides are. In the United States Holocaust Museum, nearly the entire building focuses on the Jewish Holocaust and includes rooms that focus specifically on past and continued anti-Semitism.  At the very end, however, they included one room about the Cambodian Genocide with the caution that genocides continued even soon after the Holocaust, and, even more importantly, a room about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, with videos and a plaque that states that the war in Syria has conditions for a genocide. It includes the essential line, “The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity”

President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stop for a moment of silence in the Hall of Remembrance as they toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stop for a moment of silence in the Hall of Remembrance as they toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Maybe Rothstein is worried that having these small exhibits at the end somehow detracts from focusing only on the Holocaust and how anti-Semitism in particular fueled it. But, for one, the exhibits about the concentration camps, witnessing the shoes, the testimonies, the pictures, creates a very powerful and lasting message, hopefully regardless of what they view right after. Second, if he believe that anti-Semitism is a special sort of hate that fuels genocide, then he should pay more attention to the parts of these museums that he believes don’t believe. Hatred, fear, nationalism, instability, and misplaced hopes and desires of any sort could potentially fuel genocide – and has. Speaking about the Syrian refugees right after going through Holocaust exhibits is probably one of the places most likely to garner people’s sympathy and have them help the refugees. Maybe he doesn’t think it belongs there, but I doubt the refugees feel the same way. I can’t help but think that if museums depicting past genocides existed while the Holocaust occurred, that Rothstein may not have been opposed to them explaining how the conditions that horrified visitors in the museum is occurring right now, and people need help. People of all kinds visit this museum, including politicians and diplomats and journalists and lawyers, people with a direct say in and about world events. Rothstein may be against Holocaust museums including these exhibits, but personally, I would criticize them if they didn’t.

~Anna Balfanz

The Jewish Identity

Edward Rothstein discusses the issue with group identity museums. He believes that other museums discuss their identity despite America, while Jewish museums base a lot of their discussion about their assimilation into America. He says “I can’t think of a single identity museum that is not disfigured by historical oversimplification and even delusion…” (Rothstein 9). While I agree with him when he says that each group deserves its own identity, and its own place to express it, I would have to disagree that all Jewish museums focus on the same thing.

I think what Rothstein misses is the fact that Judaism is multidimensional. There is the religious aspect, the identity aspect and the experience that combines the two.  If a person is religious they will look for something different in a museum than someone who is just Jew-ish. Someone that prays three times a day verses someone who believes not eating bread is more of a friendly suggestion on Passover. Regardless, each person is a Jew and I think that concept is hard to grasp for some people. Being Jewish is more than religion it is a way of thinking and understanding. I think that is why there are so many Jewish museums and each one serves a different purpose.

Rachel M image

Feeling displaced is a huge part of being Jewish and I think that is one of the reasons a lot of museums focus on Jews in America or Jews settling anywhere else.  Maybe you have to be Jewish to understand that, or maybe you have to be an immigrant or born from an immigrant to understand, but maybe the message doesn’t come across well enough. Rothstein insensitively misses the point and might have to do a little soul searching to understand the importance of focusing not just on the particulars of one identity.

~ Rachel Morin

Jewish Museums: A Unique Problem Requires Unique Solutions

Eric Rothstein pegs Jewish museums as identity museums, then goes on to compare them to museums of Asian and African American culture and history. He notes that Jewish museums veer from the usual identity museum narratives of overcoming oppression and being liberated by being one’s self. However, the comparison between Jewish museums and museums based on ethnicity is in some ways false: to be Jewish can refer to ethnicity, culture, and/or religion. And the term “Jewish” itself is a broad term, an umbrella for various sects and streams, opinions, rituals, and stories.

In his response, Rothstein does seem interested in a Jewish museum capable of addressing this multiplicity, in a way that creates a public forum for the local Jewish community. I agree that this is a goal worth striving for; as we work here at the JMM to create a new core exhibit, which we hope will illuminate the diversity of Jewish experience and identity in Maryland, we do hope to be a part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be Jewish, and who is a Jew.

At the same time, a museum is a business, and ours needs to increase its number of visitors. A Jewish museum has a decision to make: will it be designed for Jews, allowing non-Jewish visitors to be voyeurs of explicitly Jewish phenomenon, and Jews to have a place to discuss and explore their own identity? Or will it be designed with a broader audience in mind, where both Jews and non-Jews will find stories and themes that relate to or resonate with them? The JMM, with its tagline, “Find Yourself Here,” has chosen to be designed around the latter, but I don’t think that means sacrificing the goal of making our exhibit and our space a place for Jewish people to explore their identities.

I agree with Rothstein’s argument that making Jewish and Holocaust museums overly universal is detrimental to the museums. But Rothstein offers few solutions, pointing only to museums that are tailored to less contentious audiences, such as the Creation Museum or the Church History Museum, which he himself says are “for believers meant to strengthen both belief and belonging.” But even if you were to try to design a museum for Jewish “believers,” you would find yourself at a wall, since the definition of being Jewish is so broad, varied, and personal.

Nevertheless, I think our efforts at the JMM towards a core exhibit that highlights multiplicity while also illustrating universal themes have been so far successful, steps in a direction even Rothstein could get behind. I think we are on our way to creating an exhibit where one can find the universal in the particular.

~ Emilia Halvorsen

Never Again: A Response to Rothstein

When we first arrived here, we were asked to read an article by Ed Rothstein on the Jewish identity museum. In his article, he claims that Jewish Museums are too focused on universalism and not focused enough on the individual qualities of the Jewish identity. Rothstein claims that Jewish Museums, particularly Holocaust museums, “mitigate the point with other examples of injustice, genocide, and, yes, intolerance.” I completely disagree. Events do not happen in isolation and prejudices are still an unfortunate part of our world.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.

This past Tuesday, we attended the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. I spent nearly two hours in the exhibit and the effects were profound. The exhibit, while it focused on the Jewish people, did contain some elements about the other types of people who were put to death. The Roma and the physically or mentally handicapped were also seen as unfit for life by the German state. Their inclusion in the story, however, did not take away from the power of the museum. The docents wear buttons with two simple words that continue to linger in my mind: never again. The museum’s purpose is to keep the Holocaust in historical memory. The USHMM’s Never Again slogan reveals the greatest reason for keeping these memories alive. Identity does not happen in isolation. It is impossible.

~ Rebecca Miller

Why Jewish-American is Still Jewish

Edward Rothstein’s article “The Problem with Jewish Museums” is controversial for many reasons.  In it, he tackles many different facets of Jewish Museums, but he focuses primarily on the contrast between Jewish museums and other identity museums such as African-American Museums.  He argues that these identity museums follow a particular formula that highlights their distinctive culture apart from American culture, but that Jewish museums instead focus on their assimilation in American mainstream, thus ignoring or downplaying their “Jewishness”.  And while Rothstein makes several important sub-points within his argument (he remarks that identity museums try to force together groups that have historically only been unified by the racism directed towards them, such as Chinese and Korean peoples being linked as “Asian”), overall I would disagree vehemently with his belief that Jewish identity museums fail to provide a group identity through Jewish culture.

I have been working at the JMM (obviously a Jewish identity museum) for a little over two months now doing research for the exhibit on weddings.  Although I would say this definitely does not qualify me as an expert, it does allow me to say that a very significant portion of the work that I’m doing has involved Jewish wedding traditions.  Many of our artifacts are related to the Jewish faith, such as ketubot, chuppas, wedding sermons, and more.  Furthermore, one of the main themes in this exhibit is how to blend the traditions of one’s forebears into a wedding ceremony, since wedding ceremonies tend to be filled with a mix of old and new, traditions and modernity.

But even outside of this wedding exhibit, even outside of the JMM, an exhibit need not be religious for it to show and teach about Jewish-American culture.  Rothstein seems to have trouble accepting that museums should express how Jewish identity goes beyond religion, or that there can be any sort of cultural overlap.  An article written in response to Rothstein by Professor Laura Burd Schiavo at George Washington University explains the problem with Rothstein’s analysis of Jewish museums in contrast with other identity museums much better than I could.  She writes, “Because, historically, American Jews were allowed to ‘become white’ (even given the American history of anti-semitism and the foreignness of Jews that still persists in many parts of the country), expressions of Jewish identity are acceptably understood to be American, at least by Rothstein, and become stories of assimilation.”

Rothstein seems unable to accept that Jewish-American culture might still be Jewish in nature if it is not religious in nature or vastly different from American culture.  For what it’s worth, I would say that Jewish identity museums like the JMM do a fantastic job of sharing and educating on Jewish-American history and identity.

~ Gina Crosby

How is Jewish Identity Defined?

Ed Rothstein’s essay “The Problem with Jewish Museums” criticizes the absence of material about Judaism as a religion from most modern Jewish museums. He asks, “What has Judaism been as a religion, a living congeries of beliefs, laws, and practices? Who have the Jews been as a people and what does Jewish peoplehood imply or require of them? How have those laws and the texts embodying them made their peace, or failed to make their peace, with American life?” From what I’ve learned during my time at the JMM, this seems to be a gross oversimplification of the Jewish identity.

My research and experience here has taught me that Judaism is only one component of the identity and isn’t necessarily required in order to consider yourself Jewish. People can be ethnically and culturally Jewish, as well. Jewish communities have so many different perspectives and moving parts that any single attempt to portray the content of Judaism and Jewish identity would certainly come up short and risk presenting the truly diverse and colorful array of Jewish communities as monolithic.

Furthermore, Jewish identity is also defined by outsiders. Prejudice, for instance, may unite a Jewish community and encourage them to include people they may regularly exclude to combat the influence of anti-semitism. Ed Rothstein doesn’t see these ideas as important, which I think is incredibly shortsighted.

JMM’s “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit explores the cultural basis behind the “Jewish doctor” stereotype. Credit: Jewish Museum of Maryland

JMM’s “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit explores the cultural basis behind the “Jewish doctor” stereotype. Credit: Jewish Museum of Maryland

~ Alice Wynd

Trying to tell the story of many: response to “The Problem with Jewish Museums”

“The Problem with Jewish Museums” by Edward Rosenstein is a rather harsh article that feels that the main problem with Jewish museums is an underplaying of Jewish identity.  Jewish identity, as Rosenstein mentions in a response he wrote tends to be very complex. To some Jewish identity is strongly linked to the religion; to others it is more about the culture. I went on a Birthright trip to Israel and we had an activity where groups of five of a larger mixed group of New York, Florida, Baltimore and Israeli Jews were told to rank a set of concepts associated with Judaism. The activity showed that the Israeli and American Jews had different concepts of Judaism. For example the Israeli’s ranked Zionism as being more important part of Judaism than us Americans did; my group put belief in a single god as very important, where most groups didn’t.  Each group had a unique ranking of the concepts.  Keeping this activity in mind it seems it would be almost impossible to create a museum that tells the story of Jewish identity that addresses all the unique forms it takes.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland addresses this issue by telling a very specific story of Jewish identity, particularly how the Jewish population of the Jones Falls area influenced and was influenced by the greater culture of Baltimore. The story it tells is not solely Jewish, but it recognizes that the Jewish culture does not exist in a vacuum. That is the lesson that I think other museums could learn from Jewish Museums. The Museum of the American Indian, in my opinion, glosses over the ways that greater American culture hurt and influenced Amerindians and how that culture enriches American culture. I have witnessed tour groups coming through the museum and the memories that the museum evokes, and the stories that visitors, especially the older ones, tell enrich the experience of the museum. By connecting the story of the Jews to the story of American history it fills in gaps in most people’s knowledge by building on that existing knowledge. Rosenstein criticizes Jewish museums for not celebrating their history more, but I don’t think that is their goal. I think the goal is more to say “hey we are a part of this history too!” which they do well.

~ Tamara Schlossenberg

What is the purpose of any museum?

Rothstein offers some serious criticisms of Jewish Museums, claiming that they are overly general, overlapping with one another, and do not serve a specified purpose as opposed to other museums, like those dedicated to natural history, science, etc. I think there is some truth to this criticism, but it is mistaken to apply these issues only to Jewish Museums, because they ring true in educational institutions of all types.

To dive more deeply into this issue, I think it important that we first ask: what is the purpose of any museum? This should not refer to a particular kind of museum, for example a Jewish one, but the defining features of all museums. I assert that a museum is nothing more than a collection of artifacts which serve to inform members of the public about the past. The goal of the museum is to educate all members of the public about the past through objects collected from that era. Any other function that the museum fulfills is simply secondary.

So a Jewish museum does fulfill its role as a museum in that it contains a collection of artifacts that serve to inform the public about the past. The problem is that a Jewish museum, although its aim might be to educate all members of the public, does not generally succeed. In labeling themselves as simply Jewish museums, they maintain a special appeal to Jews that may not exist for other potential audiences. So even if it is unintentional, Jewish museums limit their desired patrons to mostly Jewish people, and rely on them for donations, funding, volunteering, etc., as opposed to serving the entire community irrespective of cultural or religious affiliations. This is indeed a failure of Jewish Museums to fully qualify as all-community-serving institutions. They are not entirely public, and serve a particular community. This is against the ideal of education, and in my opinion is a serious failing.

This is not a problem exclusive to Jewish Museums, but endemic to cultural institutions around the United States and the World. In attempts to preserve culture which we see as valuable, we separate ourselves from other cultural elements within our society, and perpetuate inequality and conflict. This is true of schools that cater to specific religious or ethnic denominations, charities, and the like. Instead of successfully showcasing the diversity of society in an inclusive way, these kinds of institutions prolong a complacent segregation of peoples of different color, ethnicity, faith, etc., and for the sake of cultural unity, should be abandoned. Rather than a Jewish museum, or catholic museum, or buddhist museum, there should be a single museum dedicated to all faiths and comparative studies, which aims to serve the entire community, rather than a subset of a particular interest group. If we can all abandon the mentality that our group is more special, more culturally enlightened, and more worth attention that others, then we will live in a far more harmonious culture. Obviously it is not fair for this burden to rest entirely on Jewish Museums and similar institutions, but is an important cultural initiative in which every citizen must partake in order to form a more civilized and inclusive society.

~ David Agronin

Museums as Morgues?

One of the main points of the article states that Jewish Museums are essentially morgues, rather than a tribute to Judaism’s longevity and resilience in the world. I can’t say I agree with this sentiment, partly because I have not seen anything of the kind at the JMM. In addition to honoring the past, the JMM puts on plenty of programs during the year that are dedicated to the future of Judaism and Maryland. While I cannot speak for other Jewish museums, I do not think this sentiment resonates at all with the JMM. Not to mention, would this not consider every museum of every category as a morgue?

I also find issue with a statement later in the article. Rothstein criticizes the Holocaust Museums, and others dedicated to genocide, for drawing the visitor’s attention to CURRENT genocides that are currently taking place. That, in my experience, is the entire point of history! Learning about past errors so they are never repeated! Without getting too political, the current election in the United States has very clear similarities to the hate and prejudice that Jewish people saw prior to the Holocaust. How can this possible be a legitimate critique?

Rothstein’s article, though well written and well articulated, seems to take a very negative view of the concept of a Jewish Museum. For the first time in my life, I visited the DC Holocaust Museum. Prior to that, I had toured four concentration camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek) on BBYO’s March of The Living. All of these locations are, naturally, careful to highlight the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. However, they also send the visitor home with inherent motivation to improve the world and fight prejudice. Not only does this not harm the museum’s content, it positively impacts the take away message.

Overall, my experience with Jewish Museums has been very positive. Obviously the content is geared towards the past, as it is a museum. But the overall message is concentrated on the future, and how we can impact it knowing what we know.

~Ben Snyder


Responses to “The Problem with Jewish Museums”

When I initially read “The Problem with Jewish Museums” I had to go back and dig through its contents a couple of times. His complaint was loud and clear, Jewish museums aren’t Jewish enough; yet no solutions were offered. It is one thing to generalize an entire unique section of the museum world but it is another thing entirely to do so while not offering any real advice or constructive feedback.

Let’s use the Jewish Museum of Maryland as an example for his argument; the JMM is deeply rooted in local history and the anthropology of the East Baltimore area extending all the way throughout the state which served as a baseplate for Jewish immigrants in the United States. This helps keep it relevant in Baltimore a city where Judaism as a faith accounts for about 8% of the population according to the 2010 census. If the museum catered entirely to the Jewish community there would be certain repercussions, one of these being a further alienation of the Jewish community from the people of Baltimore. The majority of Jewish residents in Maryland live outside of the city and come in to visit. A museum only catering to such a specific demographic has a hard time providing content relevant to the community it resides in.

Jewish museums come in many different forms, Jewish art museums, holocaust memorial museums, Jewish historical museums etc.. It is this variety that keeps them interesting and relevant, it sounds like the ‘problem’ with Jewish museums is their lack of focus on the faith. The response article “Why are there so many Jewish Museums” touches on this point, the phenomenon of local Jewish museums and their purposes. These museums exist as institutions in local communities, while they are all very specific to certain details they are also important  to the areas they are in as a whole. They serve as education platforms to educate people about different cultures and minorities within their communities while building a culture of tolerance. “The Problem with Jewish Museums” preaches that holocaust memorials don’t address antisemitism, yet antisemitism can be prevented by the very existence of these institutions.

~O. Cade Simon

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