Monday, March 26, 2012

National Museum of American Jewish History Part Two

In my last post, I went on about how the NMAJH did such a great job of telling specific, authentic stories. Yet, I wouldn't do my visit justice without highlighting two wonderful exhibition features from the first section of the core exhibit, the section focused on the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The first great feature is a children's space on the theme of western migration. The space features letters and diaries from a real family that traveled the Oregon trail in a covered wagon. The exhibit is fun and engaging, with period costumes, cooking pots over a dung-fueled fire, barrels of crackers from a trading post, and a life-sized covered wagon, laden with luggage, and animated by the sound of a team of oxen and the creaking of great big wagon wheels. Part of what makes the exhibit so great is its minimal use of technology. There are no buttons to push, nor screens to stare at. Children and adults alike are pulled into a world of pretend recognizable to any generation likely to cross the museum's threshold. Even in a group without children, we spent a good 20 minutes imagining we were pioneers.

On the other side of the technogical spectrum is a giant map chronicling the economic, demographic and political shifts that led to intensified westward expansion in the mid-to-late 19th century. The map fills the center of a large room whose periphery pinpoints the experiences of Jewish immigrants in cities all over the U.S. Poered by a modest touchscreen, the map lets you layer various factors, such as population density, the discovery of veins of gold, and the acquisition of new territories in a way that emphasizes the interaction among these factors, presenting them simply and beautifully. I found myself wishing I had a map like this in my own living room. Incidentally, the map was pointed out to us by a knowledgable museum volunteer. She seemed excited to share the museum's treasures with some visitors who were eager to learn. Yet another way in which this museum should provide a model to aspiring history museums around the country.

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