Beyond the Artifact and Idea Storehouse

June 1, 2001
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Amy E. Waterman

In his comments on the current state of Jewish museums, Avi Decter discusses several trends current in the museum field as a whole: continuing emphasis on interpretation, or contextualizing, of objects; the benefits of a team approach to exhibit and program development; and, foremost, an expanded definition of “museum” - beyond that of artifact-and-idea storehouse - as discovery center, studio, or setting for new scholarship.

Jewish museum professionals have clearly profited from interaction with the larger field. (To say that they have “learned” from it does not give our colleagues sufficient credit for their unique insights, creativity and hard work.) This interaction comes as Jewish museum professionals professionalize; as they train in museum practices; migrate from or to (and back again from) jobs in - to differentiate, only - “secular” museums; participate in organized forums, such as the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums. Here, the Council of American Jewish Museums has played a significant role, sponsoring panels of interest to the broad community, attracting large numbers to information-exchange sessions, and, through the AAM’s Council of Affiliates, comparing notes with other disciplined-based or ethnic museum consortia.

Yes, Jewish museums proliferate. They have made headway in fund-raising from both private and government sources; and, as Mr. Dector’s essay suggests, the sheer breadth and depth of Jewish-museum programming across the country is an indication of its health and continued growth. Our museums have ventured into new areas, in at least two senses: We have addressed more controversial social issues and have covered more literal ground, through traveling shows and itinerant museums-without-walls. We have employed the latest exhibit technologies and forms of artistry. We have also become more mindful of and responsive to diversity: ethnic diversity, denominational diversity, and, because we strive to be continuity vehicles, chronological diversity.

As we consider our institutions’ impact, museum educators and curators can turn to an array of scholarly literature that speaks to “meaning making” in museums. Among these are theories of multiple intelligences, the “flow” experience, “recreation agendas,” and my personal favorite (as a museum professional involved with the restoration of a historic Jewish site), Stephen Kaplan’s work, which pays special attention to museums’ “restoration” function - the ways in which museums facilitate the refueling and recharging of mental and spiritual energies.

These studies suggest that museums make the greatest impact when we remember that learning takes place in both the affective and cognitive domains and in the spaces in between (one might even say, in the spiritual ones). This is one reason why, as Dector suggests, art - new art - can be a way in. We have seen visual, audio and mixed-media installations beautifully complement our institutions’ authentic artifacts.

Given that some Jewish museums are located within synagogues, perhaps all should be more like synagogues. Museums must be spaces that inspire people, reflection, and remembrance. They must, simultaneously, be social and private places - places for, of, and by communities and at the same time places where visitors can be alone - with objects, beauty, and their own thoughts.

So, yes, our field is strong and gaining in strength. But if we can justifiably crow about increased quantity and quality of service, it is also true that we crow to one another, primarily; that we provide most of the testimony. The encouraging statistic Dector cites - that, across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation, and irrespective of other practice (or non-practice), large numbers of Jews visit Jewish museums - suggests that we must be doing something right. But what something, exactly? And how right?

If the Jewish museum boom is a response to demand, then our visitors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, presumably express with their attendance both a desire to learn and connect and an appreciation of what they find within our museum walls. Still, our understanding of visitors’ motives for coming, their experience at our museums, and the lingering effects of their time with us is distinctly limited.

Some Jewish museums do conduct formal evaluations during exhibit development and survey visitors as a matter of course, but the majority do not. Even when we do canvass, interview, or provide questionnaires, we must more subtly calibrate the forms of response and impact to determine if our museums are true, and truly permeable, windows into our culture - its history, arts, forms of worship and spirituality - and whether they are, or can be, catalysts for further commitment. We must continue to learn from our visitors before, during and after they learn from us - so that their experience and, in turn, that of our community, can be enriched.

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Amy E. Waterman is Executive Director of the Eldridge Street Project, which is restoring the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark in New York's Lower East Side, and interpreting the site through public programs, site-specific art works, and exhibits. Previously she was affiliated with American History Workshop, a museum planning firm, and the American Museum of the Moving Image. She is currently Chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums.

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