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Debating Museums' Future in Shaky Times

March 10, 2011 By:
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The state and stature of American Jewish museums was "Exhibit A" last week at the annual conference of the institutions' directors and programmers, held at the spanking new National Museum of American Jewish History.

Gathered at the museum on Independence Mall -- with tours and side trips to such nearby sites as the Constitution Center and Temple Judea Museum at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park -- more than 200 delegates of the Council of American Jewish Museums delved into such topics as curating and collecting, as well as the "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats" facing the institutions.

With "no tech to high tech" part of this specialized social network's new jargon and digital storytelling having its own tale to tell, the delegates pondered people-to-people interactions as well, looking into, as one session called it, "strategies for museum/community collaboration."

Attracting speakers offering numerous solutions to new problems while also questioning solutions used in the past that may no longer be viable, the three-day conference showcased both the glittery edge of collecting and displaying, as well as the nitty-gritty of exhibiting ("Teaching, Training and Interpreting").

Money Matters

The economy has clearly had its effect on the museum world. A sampling of delegates from around the nation revealed a shared resolve and a comfort knowing that colleagues are in the same boat, whether that boat is kept afloat financially or sinking slowly intoTitanic status.

"We are not doing as many special projects, but we're surviving," said David Farris, executive director of Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives of Richmond, Va., which tells the story of his local community.

"We went through a tough time, but we're living off" what's in the coffers, said Martha Sivertson, director of volunteers at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beechwood, Ohio.

Arielle Weininger of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie welcomed the chance to meet and greet colleagues and exchange ideas. Of course, that meant talking to others whose provenance is the Holocaust and seeing how they deal with the prospect of "survivors dying."

Fraidy Aber of the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, opened in 2008, wanted to see how others approach the topic of "reaching out to both Jewish and non-Jewish" audiences in museum markets that face increasing competition.

The setting afforded many a context to perpetuate areas of history covered by their museums.

"It's exciting to feel that you're walking in the footsteps of history," Weininger said of the National Museum's Independence Mall location.

Deanne Kapnik, director of special events for the Mizel Museum in Denver -- a source of information about "Jewish Colorado," as well as national aspects of Jewish life and the Holocaust -- said she was gratified by sharing conference time with others.

"Being a cultural museum in a little pond," she said, it was nice to find that the water is fine in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

(Not that everything is blissful with big-city museums; many, based on talks with delegates, are faced with competition for foot traffic, and can be squeezed while seeking funds and donors.)

At least one visitor offered a different accent on the proceedings: Bernhard Purin, director of the Jewish Museum in Munich, found his U.S.counterparts accommodating in explaining how they deal with what turns out to be familiar problems.

Whether from America or Europe, he said, "we have similar issues to deal with, whether they be collections" or fluctuations in the global economy.

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