Curator says Jewish museums should take ‘theatrical’ approach

Curator says Jewish museums should take ‘theatrical’ approach

Issue of particularism vs. universalism challenges organizers

In choosing “freedom” as its theme, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia must find ways to maintain an ethnic identity within a more universalist context.
In choosing “freedom” as its theme, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia must find ways to maintain an ethnic identity within a more universalist context.

Perhaps communal leaders should back away from pushing synagogue membership and instead increase Jewish engagement by touting joining another type of Jewish institution, a museum. 

Today, with synagogues failing to attract the younger generation, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett of Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews said museums can play a central role in a new Jewish landscape. “The museum is kind of a place for the unaffiliated,” she said. “It is a secular space that is a neutral ground where people can feel comfortable who are not connected to anything Jewish.”

The best way to attract those visitors is by transforming museums into places that are “more theatrical, narrative, expressive, and communicative,” she said in a talk given at Princeton University.  

What they should leave behind, she said in her presentation, “Theater of History: Performing the Past in American Jewish Museums,” is their current “exhibitionary” focus on objects, showcases, and labels; they must move from simply displaying and explicating collections into an environment that more closely suggests world fairs and expos.

The 1970s and ’80s saw the start of museums’ collecting American-Jewish ephemera in earnest, said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the director of the core exhibit at POLIN and a professor emerita at New York University. The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) was established in 1976 in the Mikveh Israel Sephardi synagogue in Philadelphia (it moved into its new building on Independence Mall in 2010). During the same period, the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles started its Project Americana; the regional Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience was established in Jackson, Miss.; and many synagogues in former Jewish immigrant neighborhoods were transformed into museums.

But the simple amassing and exhibiting of Judaica — representing in most cases the

religious and cultural life of once thriving Jewish communities now gone or decimated — represents a failure to convey the totality of the Jews’ story. Quoting the critic Edward Rothstein, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, “A museum of Jewish religious artifacts alone is partly a Jewish morgue, less a tribute to Judaism’s continuity than a memorial to a world of belief left behind — in some cases forcibly so.”

Fueled largely by Congress’s funding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1980 — it opened in Washington in 1993 — the 1980s saw an increase in the establishment of institutions focused on the Shoa. 

In part as “a kind of pushback on the proliferation and power and importance of Holocaust museums,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, and in part as a recognition of Rothstein’s suggestion that museums focused only on the past will not succeed, Jewish museums have more recently shifted to representing Jewish peoplehood.

As museums shifted “from classic collections of Judaica and archeology to ethnic or identity museums,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, they often added a more universalist focus on diversity and tolerance. The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage near Cleveland, for example, states that its mission is to introduce visitors to the beauty and diversity of the Jewish heritage in the context of the American experience” and promote “an understanding of Jewish history, religion, and culture.” But it continues that it also seeks to “build bridges of tolerance and understanding with those of other religions, races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said that among those who took exception to that non-particularist approach was Rothstein, who argued that “in an attempt to broaden audience and universalize the message, Jewish museums are losing their soul.”

Ably condensing the conundrum inherent in the issue of particularism versus universalism, said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, was Peter Schafer, director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, who said, “At our exhibitions, if they are too Jewish, you don’t get an audience, and if they are not Jewish enough, you don’t get an audience.”

When the NMAJH opened its new building in Philadelphia, it chose freedom as its theme. But by choosing this approach, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, NMAJH and similar museums must confront the challenge to maintain an ethnic identity within a more universalist context. 

Although Kirshenblatt-Gimblett voiced some criticisms of NMAJH, she expressed enthusiasm about how the museum succeeds in using the more “theatrical,” communicative approach she was touting. One example was its presentation of the 19th-century Purim balls that were organized as fund-raisers by German Jews. “This is theater, exhibition as theater, open space, you move around” in the exhibit, she said, in a way that fully engages visitors.

She also pointed to the museum’s method of telling the stories of 18 notable American Jews, depicted in two enormous panoramic videos in the main lobby. She said she especially liked their relational approach, with children talking about parents, and students talking about a revered teacher. And for every person celebrated, there is a small showcase of a few “amazing” original objects. “It is a brilliant solution — considering my allergy to ‘halls of fame,’” she said.

Her own POLIN museum, at the end of its exploration of 1,000 years of Jewish history, reaches out to contemporary Jews in Poland. The final exhibit includes interviews with about 20 Jews living in Poland today, featuring their answers to such questions as “What does Israel mean to you?” and “Is there a future for Jews in Poland?” 

But the single most provocative question, the one that connects the POLIN museum to Polish Jews of today, she said, “is not a natural question to ask [in the United States], but it is a natural question to ask in Europe, particularly post-communist Europe,” in a country where after the Shoa, Jews often concealed their Jewish identity: “Did you always know you were Jewish?” 

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s talk, the Lapidus Family Fund Lecture in American Jewish Studies, was presented April 19 by Princeton University’s Program in American Studies and Program in Judaic Studies, and was cosponsored by the Princeton University Art Museum, Lewis Center for the Arts, Department of Comparative Literature, and Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.

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