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.

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls

For a little less than a month longer, the Dead Sea Scrolls will remain on display at the Discovery Center in Times Square in New York City. If you can afford the steep entrance fee, I would recommend catching this exhibit before it moves on.

As Edward Rothstein of the New York Times points out in his eloquent review, this exhibit stands out because of the depth of its historical content, not because of any one spectacular object, or even a set of objects.  Even arranged in an inviting rotunda, fragments of parchment fail to elicit aesthetic wonderment.  However, the way in which the exhibit's producers and curators connect the objects excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority with their larger regional histories and the traumatic historical events that led to the dissolution of communities at places such as Qumrun and Masada, lends the tiny fragments on display an exquisite richness.

Aside from the history that the objects represent, I was particularly struck by the history of the objects themselves.  A video produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority describes how the scroll fragments were first excavated and then examined in ways that would make today's archivist or conservator cringe.  For far too long, scroll fragments were laid out in a light-filled library, prodded by scholars as they smoked or ate with their other hand, and bound together with adhesive tape!  Yikes.  At the end of the video, a very earnest, and very professional-looking, conservator explains the necessity of painstaking conservation work and minimal light exposure to ensure that these scrolls are preserved as well in the years to come as they were for thousands of years in clay jars within caves near the Dead Sea.