Harnessing Technology for Jewish Museums

June 1, 2001
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Miriam Ancis

With the increasing availability of broadband access, the Internet revolution is now ushering in a new era of museum education that will permit Jewish museums to further their mission of preserving and transmitting Jewish experience. Jewish museums can reach out to communities of various nationalities and ages by launching innovative exhibits as a way of attracting online students, researchers, and the curious to their collections. As an example of a dynamic virtual museum, the Smithsonian museum’s online offering, “The Virtual Smithsonian,” leads the way with a stunning presentation of the museum’s mission, collection, and vision. Through a series of online exhibits, artifacts are displayed with just the right amount of text accompanied by the seductiveness of sound, video clips and cool photographic tricks.

Today, “The Virtual Smithsonian” (having no doubt been produced with a multimillion-dollar budget) stands nearly alone in cyberspace. A portion of The Jewish Museum’s site (jewishmuseum.org) called the “Contemporary Artists Projects,” approaches this level of innovation by displaying artwork specifically made for computer viewing. By airing these pieces, The Jewish Museum advances the possibilities for this new art form.

More often than not, however, museum sites are little more than pages of a book onscreen. Our challenge is to integrate the capacity of CD technology - animation, graphics, music and video, mental and kinesthetic games - with the Internet’s contribution of interpersonal discussion. Sites that utilize these technologies will be able to offer dynamic exhibits that call on the viewer to function as an active participant along with fellow virtual-museum travelers.

Karla Goldman discusses several excellent sites of Jewish interest. The Holocaust Museum’s online exhibit of a young man’s diary beautifully conveys history while giving the viewer a sense of intimate contact with this precious artifact. Other exhibits in this museum, in the Tenement Museum, and in the Jewish Women’s Archive weave photography and text to relate history. As we advance along with the technology, the next stage for our museums will be to incorporate the Internet’s interactive potential. The Tenement Museum might augment its exhibits by allowing visitors to interact with the characters in a way similar to their live choreographed presentations. A visitor, for example, might select a family character and join her/him through a typical day at work, in the market or at school, along with highlights of the material culture that make up that world. The Jewish Woman’s Archive might expand upon an exhibit by soliciting submissions from the viewing public. For example, the current exhibit “Women Who Dared” might guide visitors to create similar exhibition pages of noble women in their own communities for display in a public space and future inclusion in the Archive.

For the past two years, I have been developing toldot.org: The Online Jewish Museum of the Next Generation (scheduled to appear online in September 2002). Aiming to reach kids and teens, each exhibit will incorporate game technology, videos, animation, chat rooms, and other platforms for user input. Toldot.org will feature a gallery of work by children and teenagers and an archive of historical and contemporary work about Jewish children and childhood around the world. In an exhibit on medieval Spain, for example, participants will assume the identity of a Marano, enter a chat room with another visitor posing as a soon-to-be-exiled compatriot, and together they will discuss the question of how to preserve Jewish life and culture. In the planned exhibit titled “Jewish Children around the World,” participants will meet children and teens from cities throughout the world and have the opportunity to discuss with their cyberpeers issues of Jewish identity and Jewish life.

We are at the threshold of great opportunity. If an institution is interested in being a leader in promoting the power of history through artifacts, documents, oral histories, and fine arts, it must be willing to devote resources and staff to reach beyond its borders to communities that await. The result will be museums that reflect the past with an eye to the present, and a population accustomed to interacting with the cultural resources of our roots.

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Rabbi Miriam Ancis is Executive Director and Founder of toldot.org: The Online Jewish Museum of the Next Generation. She is also the rabbi of Havurat Shalom in Brooklyn, New York.

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