Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jewish History on Independence Mall

In 2010, the National Museum of American Jewish History opened its brand-new five-storey building to the public.  A little belatedly, I visited for the first time two weeks ago.  I was rife with anticipation, having heard good things about the museum's lay-out, artifacts, and exhibitions.  I was not disappointed.

The NMAJH effectively accomplishes what the best "ethnic" or "sub-group" narrative museums are able to do better than most history museums that attempt to embrace the entirety of the public. (See my review of MOCA for an example a way in which this does not work perfectly.)  It presents American history, from the Colonial era through the present, through the lens of a single population, quite diverse in truth, but viewed as a unit by those outside its confines. The stories it tells are specific, tied to artifacts and personal memoir, and then knitted together by statistics, geographical trends, and outside events that affect everyone.  Immigration, westward migration, capitalism, civil rights and other social movements, suburbanization, and identity politics all get their due in a way that manages to simultaneously embrace debate and celebrate the spirit of self-definition within a narrative where everyone is motivated by the ideal of freedom.  This is rather patriotic stuff bolstered by the truth that can only come from lived human experience.

In essence, the narrative arc of the NMAJH reminds me of a Ken Burns documentary, thick with anecdotes and embroidered with inspirational profiles.  The skeptical public historian in me always asks if this is a critical cop-out.  How is it that we can be endlessly inspired by the beauty of disagreement within  a larger framework of democratic striving?  The Constitution Center, just a block away, attempts to to do the same thing, and, through perhaps too much showy-ness and generalization, sometimes misses the mark (although I'll be the first to admit that its celebratory multimedia show makes me teary).  But I contend that the NMAJH succeeds because it portrays real history.  And history, because it is story above all else, succeeds in motivating us to question our reactions and appreciate our humanity as we anticipate the future.

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