How Museums Invent Us

In the 1930sa Minneapolis Jewish housewife named Bessie Furman hired a carpenter and an electrician to create her Chanukah brainstorm: a chunky wooden Magen David illuminated by a bulbous Christmas light at each point of the star. It wasn’t the most elegant design, but it gave Jewish color to the holiday season, and she was able to sell enough of them to friends to pay her annual Hadassah pledge.

Bessie’s humble creation, now a piece of Jewish American folk art, is one of the artifacts in an exhibit entitled “Unpacking on the Prairie: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest,” which first showed at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1996 and is now traveling around the country. Historian and curator Linda Mack Schloff’s decision to include the Magen David in the exhibit signals the eagerness of museum curators to expand the definition of what, exactly, constitutes “Jewish art.”

If this were thirty years ago, Bessie’s whimsical decoration would not be in a museum. Perhaps it would be a family curio, the annual focal point of holiday jokes and memories. Even when viewed as a historical artifact, a curator would have been hard-pressed to justify its addition to an exhibition of Jewish history. Where would this tchochke fit? The traditional story of the Jewish people encompassed the sweeping stories of Diaspora, Zion, and the Holocaust, and was peopled by kings, warriors, politicians, prophets, martyrs and writers. The creative pluck of a suburban Jewish wife didn’t have a place in that epic drama.

Feminism and other activism has changed all that. The women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the upsurge of a “culture of redress” challenged fields like anthropology and history to rethink the assumptions that had created them. “As history rethought itself, there came with it a new form of museum practice to match it,” explains Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor of Performance Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Over the past 30 years, museum holdings have become more inclusive of alternative cultures and perspectives, and the curator, who used to spend much time managing collections, began spending more time on exhibitions, which are the “primary way you reach the visitor,” according to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

Today, curators—including many Jewish women—are exploring alternative sources of history once regarded as ephemeral and inconsequential: family stories, jokes, toys, tools, posters, clothing and even recipes. The resulting exhibitions, such as a 1994 survey of immigrant Jewish women’s clothing at the Chicago Historical Society, “Becoming American Women,” or the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s 1993 “Mechanical Brides,” herald a new era in museology. They are also extremely popular.

Jewish museums have always struggled against the popular impression that the “People of the Book” don’t possess a material culture: that is, ordinary objects and the paintings, sculptures and other “high art” produced within a particular cultural context. Jews are better known for their textual productions: the Torah, Talmud, and folktales, novels and songs.

Ellen Smith, curator at the American Jewish Historical Society, finds that perception ludicrous: “The second commandment—’thou shall have no graven images’—does not mean ‘thou shall have no material culture’! Jews have tons of ‘material culture,’ we’ve just never been taught it. This stuff, Jewish stuff, counts too.”

But many Jews find it difficult to imagine a material culture beyond ceremonial art. We all know the ornate silver kiddush cups and bejeweled Torah mantles standing untouched in forgotten synagogue display cases. But ceremonial art tells only part of the Jewish story.

“It used to be that only if something was exquisite, precious and rare was it important,” says Susan Youdovin, curator of education at the Speitus Museum. “We understand now that what may be more important are things that we may have overlooked, the things we use every day, every week, that influence the way we act and think.”

Jewish museum curators are expanding their collections, incorporating what Smith calls “petty or lesser or forgotten objects,” including bat mitzvah centerpieces and Rosh Hashanah postcards, slick mass-produced souvenirs and clumsy handmade crafts. These objects are “forgotten” no more. They allow curators to ask better questions, to incorporate the voices of women, children and other once-marginalized Jews into the “big picture.” The question in Jewish history is no longer “What happened?” but rather “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”

Jewish women have a particularly close connection to objects. Historically barred from the abstract world of Torah and Talmud, traditional women developed a pride in the hands-on nature of what was “women’s Judaism”—keeping kosher and preparing the home for holidays. During the mass emigration from the Russian Pale in the 1880s it was the mothers who carried the peklakh (bundles) containing candlesticks and hand-embroidered challah covers, samovars and family photographs. As she dismantled her home for immigration to America, the Jewish woman literally chose with her hands the household objects that best represented the identity and commitments of her family, wherever they might settle in the New World.

How many American Jewish women have found hidden in their attics another generation’s candlesticks in need of polishing or a family photograph with the penciled names fading? How many have felt the thrill of reconnection as they put their grandmother’s challah cover back into use? Elevating forgotten objects to heirloom status, we, like curators, affirm the importance of small actions and choices to the direction of Jewish life.

Permanent exhibitions everywhere are being overhauled to give attention to the multiple voices and narratives that have made up Jewish history. Karen Mittelman, the curator of the new permanent exhibition at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, has tried to avoid the effect in which visitors hear “the museum speaking from the walls.” In the place of an authoritarian, disembodied voice—one that describes sacred customs on text panels and admonishes the visitor to fight for Jewish survival—she composed a symphony of Jewish voices, using quotes and excerpts from diaries, letters and oral histories.

The new exhibition, entitled “Creating American Jews,” eschews the typical chronological march through famous events, “great” Jews and historic dates. This story focuses instead on “the choices that make up an individual identity,” says Mittelman. “The choice whether you are going to keep kosher on the frontier, or whether, in the 1950s, you are going to let your kids sing Christmas carols in school—these aren’t monumental choices. They are decisions made in the living room or kitchen, but when you add up all these choices, they shape who we have become as a people.”

Women frequently made those “kitchen decisions,” and their choices shaped the nature of Jewish belief, practice and community. Schloff, curator of “Unpacking on the Prairie,” argues that in the early American Midwest the lack of a Jewish “infrastructure” of rabbis and institutions meant that women had an enormous role in determining the direction of Jewish life, a role that was “more important perhaps, than in New York City.” Schloff’s exhibit shows that even an “ordinary” Sisterhood cookbook, for example, is a significant historical document. Reform temples put out “treif cookbooks” that subtly announced the communal decision to abandon kosher rules. Many cookbooks incorporated recipes borrowed from Finnish neighbors, or recipes for blueberries, a regional staple fruit. Evidence of increasing assimilation? Not so fast, says Schloff. Later cookbooks, packed with Israeli and Sephardic recipes, proudly heralded the era of “kitchen Zionism” for Midwestern Jewish women.

Innovative Chanukah decorations, like “Maccabee” cookie cutters or Bessie Furman’s electrified Magen David, do more than record the Americanization of Jews. According to Schloff, they reflect the tactics mothers used to make being Jewish attractive to their children and the compromises and creativity involved in forging a new identity. New exhibits teach us that Jewish identity isn’t merely a result of rabbinic debate and institutional change, but is also a product of the home, hearth and our mothers’ hands.

Visitors love stories, and museums have seized on the power of narrative to transform their exhibitions. With stories, curators bring objects to life and give history a fullness and presence it lacked in earlier exhibits. Curators spend more time recording oral histories connected to personal objects and seeking out documents that may reveal a hidden fact about an object’s existence. When an object is reunited with its story, its charisma and persuasiveness are magnified.

“The fact that an artifact was really there is very meaningful to people in both an emotional and intellectual way,” says Margo Bloom, the director of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

The Skirball Cultural Center, in Los Angeles, recently added an 1897 Jewish bridal dress from Decatur, Illinois, to its collection. Grace Cohen Grossman, the Judaica curator, says her team felt “very fortunate to have a photo of the bride in her gown, and the ketubah, and a wedding present. We were able to talk to the granddaughter of the bride, who also had a newspaper article about the wedding.”

At New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, artifacts are paired whenever possible with a photograph of the owner or a quote from a letter, diary, or even an interview (if he or she survived). Curator Ellen Smith praises the new museum for forging a “wonderful reassociation of humans and their objects,” which creates an “overpowering livingness,” even in a Holocaust museum.

One artifact, a tiny baby’s shoe, vividly illustrates the emotional stress family members felt when they separated during their escape from Germany. According to the exhibition text, the shoe was originally worn by Irene Katzenstein, who was sent to Britain along with other Jewish children on one of the last kindertransports. Though Irene’s mother joined her later, her father could not get a visa and instead fled to South America, taking the single shoe as a reminder of his love for his daughter far away. The story and accompanying photograph animate the shoe far better than a conventional text panel, which might have read “Shoe worn by girl before boarding a kindertransport.

“You can’t just have a neutral shoe. There is a person, a foot that belonged to that shoe,” Smith emphasizes. “The breakthrough is the insistence that people never get lost from their stories. . . . I hope ‘forever after’ that museums will put that object back with the person.”

While developing “Creating American Jews” in Philadelphia, Karen Mittelman also sought to tap the compact eloquence of narrative. The entire exhibit takes the form of an oral history. “We started with the idea that an exhibit should unfold the way a story unfolds. If your grandmother tells you a story about her life, she doesn’t go from beginning to end. She jumps around, she wanders, she stops, she starts, she gives you details about her life.” Likewise, the new exhibit has four starting points, not one, and travels both forward and backward in time.

Mittelman admits that the innovative layout challenged established ideas of what a history museum should be. “We were trying to shake up the traditional chronological overview” of a historical exhibit, Mittelman recalls. “Many of us on the project team were at first skeptical about this design idea.” So she went to a board meeting armed with her metaphor of the tale-spinning grandmother. “I asked them to think about how their grandmothers talked to them . . .” And the board members accepted the plan.

Why do people gravitate toward local stories and personal anecdotes? Stories, for one, are easier to remember than “textbook style” panels. Many visitors also feel a greater resonance with regular people than famous Jewish heroes or celebrities. Susan Youdov in calls stories “the ultimate Jewish tradition, the aggadic or midrashic as opposed to the halachic. Jews have been telling and retelling them, interpreting and reinterpreting them for ages. That’s the Talmud. Sure, it gets codified and even fossilized in legal jargon, but stories are the kernel. That may seem controversial, because to some Judaism is about the law.”

Controversial or not, the new exhibit designs have been drawing in the crowds and even moving people to tears. The trend began in earnest in 1980, when Ellen Smith had a late-night vision: Using recorded voices and programmed lighting, she would allow the museum visitor to spy on a “Sabbath kitchen,” to eavesdrop on the bustle of the grandmother preparing food, the mother telling the children to wash, and the saying of prayers around the table as the candles lit up.

At that innovative show, “On Common Ground: The Boston Jewish Experience, 1649 to 1980” at the American Jewish Historical Society, visitors stood entranced before the empty recreated kitchen, listening to the four-minute tape over and over, hearing the Sabbath quiet descend on the crowded household again and again. They reported that the auditory story evoked powerful personal memories of Shabbat and childhood.

Over the last two decades, Smith has consulted with many museums seeking to elaborate on or imitate the “Sabbath kitchen” design or create their own microcosms of Jewish life. The Jewish Museum’s 1990 exhibit, “Getting Comfortable in New York,” used a whole series of Jewish “period rooms,” including a tenement kitchen and a suburban recreation room from the 1950s. Jenna Weissman Joselit, the guest curator, recalls that the attempt to be both “playful and critical” was a success with audiences.

Visitors respond to “period rooms” and domestic objects on many levels: the visceral, the emotional, the personal, the spiritual. Though museums have always displayed objects, older methods of museology risked alienating the visitor with only academic facts on the wall panels. Now, objects can elicit empathy and create a Jewish “past” that can be partially touched, smelled, listened to and looked at.

For Jewish women, especially, domestic objects can bring a thrill of recognition. We see ourselves in the new exhibits, and learn that our humble belongings and small choices are, indeed, part of the great Jewish legacy. When I first saw a picture of Bessie Furman’s Chanukah decoration, I immediately remembered the square “Chanukah bags” my mother sewed for my sister and me when we were growing up in the Midwest. According to my mother, the bags were filled with toys each year by the “Chanukah fairy,” a tiny creature very like the tooth fairy who preferred a diet of left-over latke bits and applesauce.

“Objects validate memory,” Susan Youdovin has written. And it is true that Schloff’s decision to use Bessie’s decoration in the exhibit on Midwestern Jewish women gave me a historical context for my mother’s Chanukah bags. I no longer remember the bags with a half-embarrassed laugh, but see them as artifacts, evidence of my mother’s successful struggle to keep her kids happily Jewish when Christmas rolled over St. Louis like a juggernaut.

“I never realized I was part of history, too,” a woman told Joselit after donating an object to her show. “I loved hearing that,” the curator relates. The comment conveyed the empowering sense “of being a part of something larger than yourself, especially when the object is smaller—a hat or a pin or a pot.”

In this regard, Jewish museums have come to recognize that exhibits with a human touch are often powerful tools for reaching assimilated or unaffiliated Jewish visitors who are searching for a way to reconnect to Judaism. Jewish museums have emerged as “the major forums for informal Jewish education in America,” according to a recent article by Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which created the Council of American Jewish Museums. With their increasingly sophisticated and attractive lectures, films, tours, classes and other cultural programs, Jewish museums actively court their visitors. According to Siegel, the museums represent nothing less than “a new breed of American Jewish institution.”

While visiting a museum is not the same as attending religious services, exhibits can offer a “non-prescriptive setting to learn about Jewishness,” according to Margo Bloom, the director of the National Museum of American Jewish History. “Museums can be perceived as less threatening than going to a synagogue.”

While curators are pleased with the enthusiastic reception of many new exhibitions, they want to do more than feed audiences hungry for nostalgia and validation. When Joselit curated “A Worthy Use of Summer,” a show on Jewish summer camps, many visitors were upset that their particular camp wasn’t mentioned. “If you’re dealing with people’s history, they feel just as knowledgeable. It’s their history, after all,” she says. “Folks come looking for themselves, and if it’s not there or there in the form they want it to be, then they’re not happy. You try to balance, and hopefully you satisfy some of them.” The challenge for curators is to attract visitors through personal connections, memories and feelings, but the final goal is to educate them and expand their perspectives.

In 1977 there were seven founding members in the Council of American Jewish Museums. Now almost sixty museums are represented in the professional organization. The recent success of the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum, says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “has brought to the attention of the ordinary person what a museum can be and can do.”

The Jewish museum in America has proven itself able to grapple with issues of identity, memorial and community in sophisticated and appealing forums. A museum visit can also be a transformative experience, although not in the narrow (and hard to measure) moral sense. Rather, museums can change the way Jews look at their own homes and family histories, and their modes of worship and ritual.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls this the “museum effect.” “Not only do ordinary things become special when placed in museum settings,” she writes in her new book, Destination Culture, “but the museum experience itself becomes a model for experiencing life outside its walls.”

The heimische approach to museum exhibitions has its feminist detractors, though. Laura Kruger, a freelance curator for Jewish and secular museums, says, “I’m not comfortable with [these shows], with the celebration of the Jewish woman as homemaker.” The shows evoke negative, rather than positive, memories of the home for Kruger. “I was brought up in a time when women were not encouraged or expected to be equal or excellent in things other than domestic. The domesticity of women was paramount even in enlightened or educated households. Women were expected to be excellent but not outside of their own family. They were not usually encouraged to be doctors and lawyers.”

But enterprising curators have shown us that through museums we can change our visions of ourselves. And—as a recent New York show demonstrated—they also have the power to change the way in which we live our lives. The exhibit, inspired by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project and entitled “Miriam’s Cups,” invited artists to create a ritual cup in honor of Miriam to be used alongside the Cup of Elijah at the Passover seder. All the cups were for sale, and most—while elaborately designed—could be put to actual use. The show offered a vision of how innovative curating might “talk back” to the home, inspiring women to make feminist changes even in their familiar objects and rituals.

And so the dialogue between women and museums continues. One day a Jewish woman walked through Ellen Smith’s office door at the American Jewish Historical Society with a kiddush cup in her hands, a “typical mass-produced kiddush cup that your bubbe and zayde had on their table and brought over from Russia. “Smith, thrilled by the unsolicited donation, asked the woman why she was giving it to the Society. “My children don’t want it or understand it,” the woman replied.

“That clarified for me why I’m in this business,” Smith confides. “Not because I want four hundred more of those cups, but because I want people to appreciate and pass them on, to learn and record the stories about the objects for their own family history, so their children will want to keep them as well.”

Carolyn Feibel is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.