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Liberty Bells and Whistles

Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History dazzles technologically but is a little too one-note

Jenna Weissman Joselit
December 15, 2010
The National Museum of American Jewish History.(Photo © Jeff Goldberg/Esto for Ennead Architects, courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History.)

The National Museum of American Jewish History.(Photo © Jeff Goldberg/Esto for Ennead Architects, courtesy of National Museum of American Jewish History.)

Not since 1876, when Philadelphia played host to the Centennial Exhibition, a breathtaking display of the latest technology, art, and consumer goods, has the city experienced so much traffic. Much like that fabled fair, the recent opening of the National Museum of American Jewish History drew politicians, celebrities, entertainers, and crowds galore to the City of Brotherly Love to take stock of and bear witness to the nation’s bounty. The Centennial Exhibition, related one eyewitness, is a “great school,” from which one can learn a lot about the world and America’s place in it. You could say the very same thing about the National Museum of American Jewish History.

The tale of how American Jewry came to be inhabits three entire floors of the brand new museum. Thorough and comprehensive, that narrative touches all the bases and makes all the requisite stops. Hayim Solomon. Check. The Touro synagogue. Check. The Seligman Affair. Check. Gefilte fish. Check. Anti-Semitism. Check. The Yiddish press. Check. Shabbat candles. Check.

Every single one of these historic details is expertly narrated and handsomely—and at times, even whimsically—displayed. Portraits of Jewish notables of the federal era are beautifully hung and lit; a set of metal barriers like those designed to keep future Americans in line at Ellis Island underscores the underbelly of the immigrant experience; the anguished letter of an 18th-century mother, whose son has declared his intention to marry a non-Jewish woman, is front and center. On a lighter note, a simulacrum of a cow pokes his nose out the window of a barn in a display given over to Jewish agricultural colonies of the early 20th century, while a model of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, replete with a hardwood gym floor and a gleaming chandelier in the social hall, puts one in mind of the loveliest of dollhouses.

What gives the museum its special charge, though, is not its wide-ranging collection of artifacts or the imaginative ways in which they’re displayed, but its digital appurtenances, its marvels of technological wizardry. A gallery-sized interactive map of the United States visualizes the process by which the Jews moved hither and yon. Dancers at a Purim ball glide gracefully through space. Words intended to teach immigrants the English language magically appear, one by one, on a blackboard. Home movies dance on a Formica table top. Photographic images of people and places ebb and flow, zoom in and out, fly across the screen. Thanks to the systematic and clever deployment of the very latest bells and whistles, the museum is awash in movement.

You can’t help but be dazzled by the pyrotechnics, bowled over by the sweep of things, invigorated by the handsomeness of the building, and heartened by the imaginative, fructifying interplay of architects, curators, designers, fabricators, historians, and video artists. I certainly was.

And yet, all the hustle and bustle—or what in museum-speak is labeled “interactivity”—ultimately left me cold. A successful museum, Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard University literary critic, once wrote, shuttles conscientiously between evoking a sense of wonder on the part of its visitors and generating a sense of resonance. Wonder stops you dead in your tracks; resonance makes you think. Wonder is arresting; resonance connects the dots. You need them both. At the National Museum of American Jewish History, wonder is to be had in spades; resonance is in short supply—and I, for one, keenly felt its absence. I would have liked to have come away having thought about an object or a moment or a phenomenon in a way that I hadn’t before. I would have liked to have gotten a bit teary, to have had my heartstrings plucked, to have felt an intimate connection to the inchoate and messy, alternatively frustrating and exhilarating, patrimony that is the American Jewish experience.

But little that I saw or read or observed touched me to my quick—and I’m not entirely sure why. Could it be a function of the ways in which digitized stuff ends up mediating and distancing the reality it purports to uncover? So much is going on that one easily loses sight of both context and meaning. Then again, the culprit might very well be the museum’s interpretive armature. Everything in the National Museum of American Jewish History is subordinated to one main theme: freedom. Everything—and I mean everything—on display is an iteration, in one form or another, of how the pursuit, exercise, and encounter with freedom shaped American Jewish life. Everything circles back to this one theme. Quite literally. The exhibitions start with a discussion of freedom, end with a discussion of freedom, and meet up with freedom at every turn throughout the thousands of square footage that constitutes the museum’s footprint.

Within the precincts of the National Museum of American Jewish History, freedom is positioned as a rock-solid absolute: It’s the lodestar, the organizing principle, the raison d’etre of the American Jewish experience. And therein, I suspect, lies the problem. For one thing, the possibility that freedom is itself a febrile concept with multiple, and at times even contradictory, meanings is barely acknowledged. For another, this overweening emphasis on freedom excludes other ways of exploring and reckoning with American Jewish history. Wound a bit too tight, the museum’s commitment to a one-note interpretation constrains rather than emancipates.

Perhaps the National Museum of American Jewish History would have been better served had it adopted a more subtle, variable, open-ended, and less forceful approach to the material on display. Perhaps the dazzling complexities of American Jewish history would have emerged more forthrightly and fluidly had the museum taken its cue from the higgledy-piggledy array of objects that characterize American Jewish life instead of shoehorning them into one over-arching container.

My reservations aside, American Jewry—long the stepchild of Jewish history, the butt of jokes and sneers and raised eyebrows—deserves its place in the sun and with it, a magnificent museum of its own. It now has one.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies at The George Washington University.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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