Reflecting on Tent: Museums

What is a Jewish museum? What should it be, now and for the future?

These questions were central to Tent: Museums, a week-long seminar that took place at the Jewish Museum at the end of June. Tent: Museums framed a broad discussion and debate about the role of Jewish museums in contemporary culture. Organized through the generous support of the Yiddish Book Center’s recently established Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture program, now in its second year, Tent: Museums brought together 20 young scholars, artists, writers, journalists, and museum professionals selected from a pool of applicants from across the country and around the world.

The Summer 2014 Tent: Museums group

We couldn’t have hoped for a more curious and critical group of participants. Together with Jeffrey Shandler, professor and chair at the Jewish Studies Department at Rutgers University and the seminar’s lead teacher, we all traveled around New York City to meet and engage with an incredible roster of speakers at various cultural sites: Daniel Kershaw, Senior Exhibition Designer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary; Amy Stein Milford, Deputy Director of the Museum at Eldridge Street; Annie Polland, Vice President of Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage; Tali Cherlizi, Programs Manager at Artis; and Yevgeniya Baras, visual artist and co-founder of Regina Rex Gallery. At the Jewish Museum, in-depth discussions were led by Norman Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator; Susan Braunstein, Henry J. Leir Curator; and Nelly Silagy Benedek, Director of Education.

We asked the 20 participants to each come up with a response to the week, highlighting in the medium of his or her choice an aspect of the seminar that he or she found particularly interesting or relevant. On the last day, we all gathered back in the Jewish Museum’s Scheuer Auditorium for the participants’ presentations, which you can check out after the jump.

TENT: Museums Presentations

Celia Caust-Ellenbogen
Senior Project Archival Surveyor, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
The original East Window of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was destroyed, but the modern stained glass replacement activates the symbolism of reconstituting fragments into a magnificently beautiful new artwork. To me, it crystallized the mission of self-conscious historic recreation: recognizing a past moment that was important, to acknowledge the impossibility of fully recapturing that moment and still to create a tribute that will move others to seek deeper engagement.


Annie Christensen
Cultural Programming Officer at the Oslo Jewish Museum, Norway
Annie talked about her reflections on the display of objects in the exhibitions and museums we visited over the course of the Tent week. She focused on the distinction between museums that defined themselves as an art museum or emphatically as not an art museum, and how this affected the way in which they viewed and displayed objects. In conclusion, she suggested that the benefits of erasing such boundaries may be greater than letting them dictate one’s curatorial practices.


Eva Cohen
Artist and Jewish Educator, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Objectification of Ritual illustrates the idea, expressed by the Jewish Theological Seminary presenter Dr. David Kraemer, that the objectification of Jewish ritual is a modern phenomenon reflecting bourgeois European values. This idea is an interesting and provocative one to consider, especially in a week devoted to contemplating a wide range of “Jewish objects” — including many Jewish ritual objects — housed in museums.


Jennie Crichlow
MA candidate in Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
After touring many of New York City’s Jewish museums, and meeting with their cultural creators and facilitators, Jennie began to think more about how the institutions would select technology solutions as they relate to a mission statement, internal staff culture or visitor program. This initial investigation has catalyzed additional research into how those very solutions would synthesize with an institution’s communication, investment and policy models.


The following was a two-person presentation:

Wendy Escobar
MA candidate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University
Samantha Fein
Interdisciplinary Artist and Researcher, New York City
Samantha and Wendy decided to do their presentations together as a group activity. They asked us to gather in five groups of five people and to make a list of our commons points and differences. It was a good way for us to get to know each other better after this week.


Hanna Jones
Development Coordinator at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, Canada
This composite photograph of all the entryways of the different spaces visited over the course of the week was intended to visually address some of the key questions that came up during Tent: Museums. Specifically, how do museums and cultural spaces present themselves to the public? And what, if anything, makes these places distinctly Jewish?


Ari Klickstein
Alumni Connections Associate, The Orthodox Union, New York City
Honor Wall: I take a lot of pictures in museums. I’ve taken photos of the artworks. I’ve taken pictures of the visitors. I’ve taken pictures of the visitors taking photos of the artwork. Less often do I make note of the room we all share with each other and the exhibition. Inspired by the notion that collecting is about ‘loving the unloved,’ I wanted to document our experiences during the week by highlighting the names of the donors to the spaces we were visiting. What are the stories of the philanthropists, the evolution of these spaces, and the experience of the museum professionals who shape them?


Louisa Lebwohl
BA in Women’s Labor and Public History from Hampshire College 
Louisa created a blog dedicated to the Tent: Museums seminar: She wrote a few blog posts about her experience being in New York City, visiting different cultural institutions and museums.


Rachel Libman
Head of Programs and Outreach at the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Canada
Rachel gave each participant a piece of paper on which she’d written tensions or contradictions such as “art practice vs. art display” or “museums vs. real life”. She asked everyone to give their own interpretation of those contradictions in 60 seconds.
– Art practice vs. Art display
– #Museums vs. Real life


Johnathan Morpurgo
Financial Consultant and Organizer for Non-Profit Organizations, Archives, and Artists, New York City
Thanks to a discussion Jonathan had with Norman Kleeblatt, he learned that he was related to the Morpurgo girls, who were painted by Auguste Renoir when they were young. Jonathan presented the painting to the other participants.


Claire Moskowitz
Development Assistant at the Tel Aviv Foundation, New York City
Claire was interested by language and museums, and the role of language as a formative narrative (cf. Mel Bochner). Claire is from Israel, so she was surprised to see how American museums are transposing Jewish history in English and how, in New York, Museum tours talk about her history in a language that she is not used to. Claire also talked about the concepts of exile and home — how those words are so specific to the English language — and how an exhibition “told” in English or in Hebrew or Yiddish may appear different to viewers.


Jessica Parker
Senior Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Massachusetts
This poem is a compilation of quotations and reflections noted in the course of participating in Tent: Museums 2014.


Elise Polkinghorne
MA candidate in Yiddish Studies at the University of Toronto
Elise asked the Tent participants to give her one word that would describe Judaism or Jewishness for them and compiled all those words into one image (in reference to a Mel Bochner painting). Those words were in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish.


Rachel Richman
B.A. from the University of Chicago, in Arabic, Islamic History, and Jews in the Medieval Islamic World
Rachel talked about her experience being on the tour with Daniel Kershaw at the Metropolitan Museum. She referenced a sentence that Daniel said during the tour: “The greatest revelation of an encyclopedic museum like this one is the surprising juxtapositions.” Rachel was interested by how visitors see the art on display and how the architecture of a room can influence that display.


Yael Roberts
Artist, New York City
This photo book is a collection of art pieces, architecture, and New York sights that we saw during Tent: Museums. To explore the theme of what I saw and didn’t see, and what was shown to me and what was hidden, I decided to build my own narrative to illustrate how the juxtaposition of art with other art and with architecture changes the art we see. To do this, I cut out the windows and doors in the images to see what would happen when one piece was used as a lens through which to view another.


Edo Rosenblith
Artist and Teacher, St. Louis, Missouri
Edo made some drawings related to the Dreyfus affair, which Norman Kleeblatt mentioned during his presentation on the first day of the seminar. He created a response to some posters and newspapers related to the Dreyfus affair, giving his interpretation of this story and showing the impact of contemporary images and stereotypes.


Joanna Ross-Tash
BA in Art History from Yeshiva University, New York City
Joanna was interested in the aspect of “collecting” and also about what David Kraemer said during his talk: “Loving the unloved is the highest part of a collection.” How does this connect to what museums do? She highlighted a few points:
• How Israeli artists are unseen in the art world and unloved
• How Jewish artifacts are not seen as lovable by people because they are part of our daily life, and they are not seen as art objects, either
• How some artworks used to be called “Degenerate” — once unloved and now seen by many as masterpieces
• How the Lower East Side of Manhattan used to be a place where people did not go to (less lovable at the time) and now the Tenement Museum makes the area more accessible to people


Zoe Silverman
Academic Programs Coordinator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
A photo album documenting the didactic gestures of workshop leaders on one side, and the variety of museum “objects” we explored on the other (including artwork, buildings, landmarks, and stories).

Zoe also wrote about her experience at Tent: Museums for the Hammer Museum blog, describing the questions about art and identity that the seminar raised for her and showcasing some of the extraordinary photos she took during her time in New York.


Menachem Wecker
Journalist and Writer, Washington, DC
Menachem presented a short vignette about the complications associated with the notion of under-representation of certain groups, such as Jews and Israelis, in the arts.


– Chris Gartrell, Adult Programs Coordinator, and Fanny Borrot, Public Programs Intern