Intern Weekly Response: Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience

Posted on July 20th, 2017 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read one of two chapters from John Falk’s Identiy and the Museum Visitor Experience and write a short response piece!  To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


 

The Museum Visitor Experience Model: Conflicting Identities

By Collections Intern Amy Swartz

While visiting the Louisiana Museum of Art, I mainly was an explorer, walking through the museum at my own pace and looking at art I found particularly interesting.

While visiting the Louisiana Museum of Art, I mainly was an explorer, walking through the museum at my own pace and looking at art I found particularly interesting.

John H. Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience’s 7th chapter explores types of museum visitors and how their identities affect their museum experience. There are five main identities related to motivation. They are: Explorer, Facilitator, Experience seeker, Professional/Hobbyist, and Recharger. Reflecting back on the reading and my own museum experiences, I have found that these identities are usually inter-changeable and dependent on the context of one’s visit. I usually fall into the category of explorer, or someone who goes to a museum open to wandering and looking through the exhibit in their own way at their own pace. Every museum I visit, whether it is one I have been to before or not, I inhabit that character.

While at the Louvre, I was an experience-seeker who sought out famous art, such as the Nike of Samothrace.

While at the Louvre, I was an experience-seeker who sought out famous art, such as the Nike of Samothrace.

However, while I studied abroad, museums were one of the go-to places to visit in each city. Due to time constraints and the likelihood that I would not be visiting again very soon, I fell into the Experience-seeker identity. I sought out the “best” or most well-known parts of museums to not only see them but to check them off my bucket list. In particular, my visit to the Louvre was motivated by this identity. Although I could spend days looking through the Louvre, my friend and I could only spend a certain amount of time in the massive museum so we headed towards some of the “greats” including the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and my favorite, the Nike of Samothrace. Sometimes I also inhabit the facilitator category when I bring my friends with me to museums more so that they could learn more about my favorite subject rather than for me. Ultimately, I found these motivational identities to dependent on multiple factors.


 

Using the Museum Visitor Experience Model as a Visitor

By Exhibitions Intern Tirza Ochrach-Konradi

This chapter introduces us to the five types of museum visitors: explorers, facilitators, experience seekers, professionals, and rechargers. These categories are useful both in the way they are intended to be used, as metrics for museum staff to better understand their patrons, but are also a great tool for museum goers to better plan to meet their own needs. For example, if someone realizes that they primarily go to museums to recharge, it would beneficial for them to inquire by phone which hours the museum is free of school groups or has the lowest attendance. This will help them pinpoint the time where they can best enjoy the museum the way they would like to without being interrupted.

Infographic detailing the five types of visitors. From The Incluseum blog.

Infographic detailing the five types of visitors. From The Incluseum blog.

For myself, I am generally a member of the most common category, the explorers. In the future, if I want to maximize my personal enjoyment of a museum it would be smart if I did some planning before I went. As an explorer, I am most going to enjoy seeing exhibits on a topic of which I already have prior knowledge. Before I attend a museum it would be smart if I checked the existing exhibitions online before I visited. I will likely figure out what exhibitions I am most interested in seeing and be able to make a plan about how to do that. I can also choose to do research about an exhibition topic that I am unfamiliar with, which would make that particular exhibit more interesting for me. I would be much more likely to walk through the exhibit if I knew something about its contents than if I went to the museum with no knowledge of the topic. By doing a little extra work beforehand, my museum trip can be more fruitful. Not only is it important that museum staff consider visitor’s motives it is also empowering if visitor’s can pinpoint for themselves what kind of visitor they will be and take steps to ease their own museum experience.

The current exhibitions page on the JMM website. Are you an explorer like me? This might help you plan your visit to the museum!

The current exhibitions page on the JMM website. Are you an explorer like me? This might help you plan your visit to the museum!


 

The Five Visitors You’ll Meet in a Museum

By Education Intern Erin Penn

I really enjoyed learning about the different types of visitors that come to museums. The article explains there are five types: explorer, facilitator, experience seeker, professional/hobbyist, and recharger. As the chapter outlined the various visitors, I grew a deeper appreciation and understanding of the wide audience of this museum.

Here a camper and counselor tackle the scavenger hunt together.  The counselor served as a facilitator, ensuring the camper got the most out of the exhibit and the task.

Here a camper and counselor tackle the scavenger hunt together. The counselor served as a facilitator, ensuring the camper got the most out of the exhibit and the task.

In my job in the education department, I have to work to create activities for all kinds of visitors. The scavenger hunt for Just Married, Sara and I created, had to consider how each student was going to approach the exhibit. Now seeing several classes use the scavenger hunt, I see how some students have different ideas of a museum and how to approach a challenge. Some students were such explorers; they chose not even to complete the scavenger hunt but to play with the meeples. It was neat to connect the reading to my firsthand experience as an education intern.

While the meeple activity was not on the scavenger hunt, campers migrated over to this section because of their curiosity.

While the meeple activity was not on the scavenger hunt, campers migrated over to this section because of their curiosity.


 

What Type of Museum Visitor are you?

By Collections Intern Joelle Paull

Visitors at the JMM

Visitors at the JMM

Museums are places of learning, new experiences, and discovery. We have different reasons for visiting and all experience museums differently. In his book Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, John Falk describes five different types of museum visitor. Take this quiz to determine which type of visitor you are.

book cover

book cover

Quiz:

1. Why do you go to museums?

A — To see everything I can and learn as much as possible.

B — To share experience/knowledge with family or friends.

C — To see famous works of art and objects or to seek out new experiences.

D — To gain knowledge and further my preexisting knowledge of the subject.

E — To relax after a long work week.

 

2. How to you go through a museum?

A — Look for things that interest me and gravitate towards those things.

B — Find things I can share with my family or friends that would interest them.

C — Try to see everything I can, scanning galleries and labels for important information.

D — To accomplish preset goals.

E — Sit down and spend my time experiencing the galleries and objects.

 

3. How do you react to a crowded museum?

A — Ignore the crowds and continue to explore.

B — Make sure everyone in my group stays together.

C — Join in on the fun! I want to be where the crowds are.

D — Come back another time when it is less crowded.

E — Retreat to the gift shop or cafe.

 

4. How do you feel after you leave the museum?

A — I have learned something new.

B — My family or friends learned something new and had a shared experience.

C — I have experienced something unique and want to pursue more experiences.

D — I want to keep learning about the subject — through books, lectures, etc.

E — Relaxed and ready to take on the week.

 

Results:

Which letter did you have more of?

A — Explore: You have no set goals when entering a museum. You want to explore and discover things that interest you. Falk makes the analogy between explores and shoppers who love to browse without a specific item in mind. You read labels and take your time in exhibits.

B — Facilitator: You are a parent, friend, school teacher etc. facilitating the museum going experience of others. You act as a sort of tour guide through the museum.

C — Experience seeker: You visit museums in search of new and exciting experiences, often choosing to focus your time and energy on the museum’s highlights rather than looking at everything. You like taking photos in museums and enjoy interactive exhibits.

D — Professional/Hobbyist: You know about the subject matter in the museum. You are focused on learning more about it or finding answers to your questions. You tend to have an idea of what you want to see before you enter the museum and know how best to get there.

E — Recharger: You seek out museums as a relaxing leisure activity. You pay attention to the design of the gallery spaces. You often will sit down and take your time in galleries. You may not always read all the labels but will spend a lot of time looking at the object on display. After visiting the galleries or as a break you may peruse the gift shop or grab a bite to eat at the museum’s cafe.


 

Putting Museum Theory Into Practice

By Education Intern Sara Philippe

Campers completing the scavenger hunt.

Campers completing the scavenger hunt.

Chapter 10 of Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, “Making Museums Work for Visitors” describes five different kinds of museum visitors – explorers, experience seekers, facilitators, rechargers, and professionals/hobbyists. Reading this article has made me reflect on the specific needs of the people I observe visiting the JMM and to compare it to the work the museum does to attempt to meet the varying needs of all these types of visitors. Yesterday, several groups of middle/high school-aged students visited the museum and participated in the scavenger hunt Erin and I created for the Just Married! exhibit. However, two of the groups did not have the time to use the scavenger hunt, instead touring the exhibit freely, which provided me with an opportunity to think about how the work a museum does to shape the visitor’s experience can have a big impact on the level of information the visitor absorbs.

Campers exploring the exhibit without the aid of a scavenger hunt

Campers exploring the exhibit without the aid of a scavenger hunt.

While the scavenger hunt helped generate enthusiasm in regards to the exhibit and made the campers responsible for learning and reporting on new information, without the scavenger hunt, it was easy for them to miss important, interesting information. I saw how, in this way, the scavenger hunt served as a facilitator parent of sorts, guiding the students in the effort to provide them with the best experience possible. The campers, on the other hand, were experience seekers, interested in enjoying the exhibit and seeing its highlights. Because experience seekers are not detail-oriented and prone to reading every label, the scavenger hunt offered them the opportunity to be guided to some of the most fun and compelling aspects of the exhibit.


 

Childhood Experiences Turned Into Repeated Visits

By Exhibitions Intern Ryan Mercado

I credit my public education in Montgomery County, MD and its proximity to the array of museums on the National Mall as the reason for my interest in museums. Every summer I, or my family always take a trip to the National Mall to visit museums, sometimes ones that we’ve gone to many times before. This week I was assigned to read “Making Museums Work for Visitors,” in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. This chapter is all about why people go to Museums, what characteristics of exhibits and museum buildings make it easier for people to come, and what they get out of their visits. What really resonated with me are the reasons the article cited as to why people choose to come back to museums and exhibits which they have already seen. The answer the article gave is personal context. This personal context rings true for me. As stated in the beginning of this post, I always go to the National Mall every summer to visit museums I have seen at least 10 times before. Why? Because of personal context.

I was just like this small child, staring in wonder at the Hope Diamond while on a field trip at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I was just like this small child, staring in wonder at the Hope Diamond while on a field trip at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

There are two exhibits in particular that I will probably never get tired of going to. They are the Hope Diamond Exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Japanese Art. For some reason, I always go straight to those exhibits when I enter those Museums. Sometimes if I’m in the city not on a “museum crawl”, I’ll peek in to get a look at the Peacock Room at the Freer because its right next to a metro station. Why do I love these exhibits when there are better exhibits to see? Personal context is the answer! I remember when I was in elementary school that we had a whole unit on gems. So naturally, my class took a trip to the Museum of Natural History. As we entered the gem exhibit, the first item I saw was an elegant blue gem in a diamond necklace. It was in a special glass case in its own separate room. People crowded around it just to get a glimpse of it. I pushed my way through and saw this beauty with my own eyes. It was the Hope Diamond, the most famous gem in the world. I was amazed at its beauty and history, so much so I bought a mock one from the gift shop that day. Now, because of that initial visit, I always go see the Hope Diamond whenever I go to the Natural History Museum.

The combination of blue-greens and gold made the Peacock Room stand out for me. Normally I’m used to seeing art on a canvas, not in a whole room. I still go straight to this room when at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The combination of blue-greens and gold made the Peacock Room stand out for me. Normally I’m used to seeing art on a canvas, not in a whole room. I still go straight to this room when at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The second place, the Peacock Room is located in the Freer Gallery of Art. When I was little, my family was on a museum crawl. ALL of the Museums were packed, except for the Freer, which just acquired a new exhibit, a room from a house that featured elegant Asian art. We wanted to see this new exhibit and headed on over. It is called the Peacock Room, a masterpiece by American artist James McNeil Whistler. Its green and gold designs amazed me by its attention to detail. And this is coming from someone that doesn’t really know much about art history. Like the Hope Diamond, it stuck in my head, which is why I always go see it. So in a sense, the museum visitor experience is important especially to young children, something as small as a blue gem or large as a painted room can leave someone amazed and keep them coming back. Personal experience is key!

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Intern Weekly Response: Trendswatch 2017

Posted on July 6th, 2017 by

Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to choose one of three articles from the Center for the Future of Museums Trendswatch 2017!  To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


 

Supporting Migrants at a Small Scale Museum

By Exhibitions Intern Tirza Ochrach-Konradi

“Reshaping the World: Migration, Refugees, and Forced Displacement,” is an article out of Trendswatch, a publication of the Center for the Future of Museums, about how museums can more effectively support and include migrants. The piece stresses that migration is at an all-time global high since directly after WWII, and concurrently anti-immigrant sentiment is also reaching a zenith.

This is a letter out of the Jewish Museum’s collection which discusses the arrival of Judka Josek Fried in Baltimore from Russia in 1903. JMM 1988.209.004

This is a letter out of the Jewish Museum’s collection which discusses the arrival of Judka Josek Fried in Baltimore from Russia in 1903. JMM 1988.209.004

The Jewish Museum has a particular imperative to work to support the cause of migrant groups. In this social climate where anti-immigrant sentiment is high and people are convinced that the different traditions and ideas immigrants bring will erode the strength of the US, the Jewish Museum provides examples of an immigrant community which has both maintained its own culture and participation in and strengthened the existing community. The Jewish Museum aims to collect and share the stories of Jewish Maryland. The story of the Maryland Jewish population is one of migration, assimilation, and preservation of culture. The museum is based on the idea that these histories that are particularly Jewish should be saved and celebrated.

News coverage of the Jewish Museum’s Naturalization Ceremony. Image from ABC2 News.

News coverage of the Jewish Museum’s Naturalization Ceremony. Image from ABC2 News.

I had the opportunity to attend the Naturalization ceremony that the Jewish Museum held on national refugee day.  It was a great way for the museum to support and connect to the immigrant communities in the Baltimore area. Not only is the ceremony in clear support of immigrants it also introduces the individuals that participated to the Jewish museum as a resource. I wish that the article gave examples of what else smaller museums or museums with a very specific focus, like the Jewish Museum, can do to support migrant groups. The examples give in the article, which included designing exhibitions around global migration and providing direct programing and support services to migrants are not attainable with Jewish Museum’s infrastructure.


 

Not All Questions Have Answers

By Education Intern Erin Penn

the article’s cover page

the article’s cover page

While reading “Failing Toward Success: the ascendance of agile design,” there were a few points that truly resonated with me. First, the article states in the future a “report card may be sprinkled with Fs that laud little failures.” Today pressure engulfs students to maintain a perfect GPA: even a report card sprinkled with Cs is a failure. But if this article is right, grades and test scores will just be building blocks instead of death sentences. In addition, this article argues that minor mistakes can reap huge rewards. For instance even in a small risk there is still much to learn. Both these insights are important to me as a student and an intern.

Coming Soon: this article argues this failing report card will celebrate a  student’s hard work and not hold such a negative connotation.

Coming Soon: this article argues this failing report card will celebrate a
student’s hard work and not hold such a negative connotation.

On one hand, this article motivated me to push myself to make mistakes and try new things. However, I still wonder how perfectionism and failure will change in the museum world. First, with historic museums and exhibits about the past, shouldn’t several years of preparation be allowed? Can museums afford to lose an audience by taking risks that alter the fabric of the institution? Will these small changes really have a domino effect to elicit huge change in museums? This trend is an interesting and poignant shift and it’s ok that these questions do not have answers.


 

The JMM’s Push for Empathy

By Education Intern Sara Philippe

A Mile In My Shoes describes the growing lack of empathy in the United States and suggests that museums can and should have a role to play in making sure their work actively attempts to increase visitors’ empathy. I often notice evidence of the trend of the empathy deficit as groups of people become more segregated and closed off from people of different opinions, backgrounds, etc. While I think technology has the potential to foment rather than decrease empathy in its users, I also believe that social media often serves to further segregate people, creating “homogenous bubbles,” as the article describes. However, when technology is used in spaces like museum that are specifically motivated to create connection.

A suitcase full of clothes in the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit that allows children to become the people they learn about in the exhibit through literally putting on different clothing.

A suitcase full of clothes in the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit that allows children to become the people they learn about in the exhibit through literally putting on different clothing.

The article discusses the success many museums have in employing the human capacity to empathize. For example, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City found that empathy, more than anything else, was what allowed people to connect to the exhibits they viewed. In my time at the Jewish Museum thus far, empathy has also loomed large. Though it is not necessarily specifically mentioned, much of the work that goes into designing educational supplements to the exhibits revolves around finding the best ways for visitors to viscerally connect with what they view in the exhibits. One of the main focuses I have noted in creating a successful tour or educational resource is an appeal to empathy. What matters most is not that the visitor share a similar ethnic or religious background to those they are learning about in an exhibit, but rather that they are shown how such a background does not and should not have to pose any barrier to empathy and compassion. Both of the JMM’s exhibits currently on display do a good job of appealing to such sensibilities by making the voices and words of its protagonists central to the visitors’ experience.

A station in the Just Married! exhibit that encourages visitors to share their own wedding stories, thus demonstrating their personal connections to the characters showcased in the exhibit.

A station in the Just Married! exhibit that encourages visitors to share their own wedding stories, thus demonstrating their personal connections to the characters showcased in the exhibit.


How I gained empathy at the Holocaust Museum

By Exhibitions Intern Ryan Mercado

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

This week, we interns were asked to read articles from the Center for the Future of Museums Trendswatch 2017. I chose an article entitled “A Mile in my Shoes: Closing the Empathy deficit.” This article is about how more and more people are becoming less empathetic to other people and their experiences, and how museums are places where people can gain empathy for other groups. Such is the mission of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where we help people to understand Jewish life and understand where we come from. For me, this article really struck a personal note for me. As some of you know, I am not Jewish by birth, but a Jew by choice. I began my conversion to Reform Judaism last year and while I was going through the earlier parts of this process, one thought in particular came to my head many times: How does a non-Jew understand and gain empathy for certain aspects of Jewish life, such as the Holocaust. I had no family members involved in that terrible event so I can’t understand a personal connection like so many Jews do. In comes the Holocaust Museum in DC.

Part of a class back in College was a Saturday trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. It was my first visit to the famous Museum. By that time I had already decided I would become Jewish so this visit only seemed logical. I did not expect the powerful visit I had. Throughout my visit I learned about topics and events and people I never knew. I saw things that made me think. The most impactful moment of that day was when I walked into a room and before me was a clay model of Jews being marched into the gas chambers. My mind could not take any more of that and I went to the corner of the room and began whipping tears away. That simple clay model struck a chord with me. I could see expressions of sorrow, of fear, of death in those clay figurines. I finally began to understand the scope and pain that happened so long ago.

I won’t say that I now know what it feels to be personally affected by the Holocaust like many Jews do, but that visit struck a chord. It allowed me to get empathy for an event I normally would not have had. In this case, The Trendswatch article was right; Museums are a place to gain empathy, sometimes in the form of sorrow, sometimes in the form of appreciation, such as at places like the Museum of the American Indian. I still have much to learn about the Holocaust and much more empathy and understanding about that sensitive topic. Perhaps I’ll gain more empathy in a future trip to Yad Vashem.


 

Empathy & Museums

By Collections Intern Amy Swartz

A view of one of JMM’s exhibits that relates to the local community featuring a school group.

A view of one of JMM’s exhibits that relates to the local community featuring a school group.

This week I read an article named A Mile in My Shoes: Closing the Empathy Deficit which spoke about empathy or more, the lack thereof in America’s current culture and how museums can be a way to introduce or foster empathy. I found this article as a way to reexamine the purpose of museums. Often when one thinks about a museum they think about the art, the artifacts, the history. Yet one usually forgets that these exhibits that showcase these artifacts and art are creating a dialogue between the visitor and the context. This dialogue is important to help develop connections; whether they are between the past and present, different communities, or different ways of life.

A picture featured in the article A Mile in My Shoes: Closing the Empathy Deficit showing a museum exhibit that focuses on creating and encouraging empathy.

A picture featured in the article A Mile in My Shoes: Closing the Empathy Deficit showing a museum exhibit that focuses on creating and encouraging empathy.

Museums such as the Jewish Museum of Maryland help to bridge cultural gaps, helping viewers to relate to Jewish experiences even when they are not Jewish. However, I think one of the major challenges museums face in bridging the gap on empathy, particularly in regards to different social classes, races, religions, etc., is getting visitors from different backgrounds to visit. It is important to have collections and museums that showcase different minorities or groups that are often sidelined in larger museums. However, how much do these museums increase empathy or understanding when only people belonging to that sect visit? Or more specifically, how can the JMM build trust and empathy when only those of a Jewish background (and thus those who already having an appreciation or understanding of the Jewish culture and religion) visit? I think this is one of the many challenges museum today face when trying to create exhibits and spaces for understanding and cross-cultural experiences.


 

 The Role of Museums in Teaching Empathy

By Collections Intern Joelle Paull

The assertion that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’” is a compelling one. However, the article “A Mile in My Shoes: Closing the Empathy Deficit,” from the Center for the Future of Museum’s 2017 Trendswatch, never fully explains how these “empathy engines” run. The strength of the article is the amount of data on the increasing loss of empathy in society. It presents a persuasive argument for a change in education, the justice system, health care, and range of practices. Despite this research, the article fails to explain where museums fit into this picture.

Image via USHMM

Image via USHMM

The examples given are museums like the Empathy Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships, which have opened in the recent years with the goal of encouraging visitors to look past differences and divisions. But can art museums and history museums teach empathy? What was perhaps more interesting than these examples was the statistic that found that students after one visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art “exhibited increased ‘historical empathy’ and high levels of tolerance.” This data supports the claim that museums can function as “empathy engines,” yet stops there. Still lacking is a discussion of museum curatorial and educational practices that foster the increasing ability to empathize among visitors. The question remains, what makes museums vehicles for change and key players in “closing the empathy deficit.”

School group walking in the shoes of Lombard Street residents.

School group walking in the shoes of Lombard Street residents.

Museums have the benefit of being at the cross section of many of the issues the article discusses. Art museums like Crystal Bridges have wide ranging collections, many objects dealing with identity, social justice, or even simply offering a historical perspective. History museums, which deal in narrative, similarly engage the visitor in a dialog.

 

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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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