The National Museum of American Jewish History launched a virtual tour of its core exhibit on Nov. 14, digitizing the museum’s permanent exhibits across the building’s three stories.
The project’s completion was enabled by the undisclosed financial support of Jewish philanthropist George Blumenthal, who has been involved with NMAJH periodically since 2014 when he and frequent collaborator and Israeli digitization expert Ardon Bar-Hama digitized NMAJH’s “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” special exhibit.
“Ever since I became involved with NMAJH to help digitize the 2014 special exhibition, ‘Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American’, I’ve been interested in expanding access to the museum’s core exhibition,” Blumenthal said in a press release. “As a Jewish American, I know how important it is to tell the story of our people in this country. Now, NMAJH will be able to reach a larger audience than ever before. The sky’s the limit.”
Bar-Hama also partnered with Blumenthal for NMAJH’s most recent digitization project, which allows an online user to not only explore the museum’s layout by clicking around the page but also view all display cases, zooming into the cases to view each object and descriptions in more detail.
Bar-Hama set up a server for the virtual exhibit in Germany at a robust server farm different from the one used by the museum’s website, from which the exhibit can be viewed across the globe.
The virtual exhibit provides audiences with even greater detail than the physical exhibit, allowing online users to flip through books and view objects from different angles, rather than simply view them from behind the display glass.
“Not only have we made the point that [audiences viewing the exhibit online] can actually come to the museum — for those who cannot come to Philadelphia — but they can get more detail and more comfort on the computer screen by doing it in that way,” Bar-Hama said.
NMAJH flew Bar-Hama from Israel to Philadelphia in September 2020 when the museum was closed, and Bar-Hama spent almost two weeks just photographing the exhibit.
The exhibits’ digitization consisted of Bar-Hama taking 360-degree panoramic photographs around the museum to capture its layout, followed by photographing hundreds of objects in and out of their display cases from different angles. He used a camera with ultraviolet-protected flash tubes, so as not to damage the objects with light.
Bar-Hama used that technique to photograph and digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Aleppo Codex, the earliest known Hebrew manuscript that contains the Torah’s full text. He’s also digitized an exhibit for Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, but the digitization of NMAJH’s entire core exhibit is his biggest undertaking.
“This is a revolution,” Bar-Hama said. “I don’t think you will find — if you Google it — not even a single museum on the web that you can see completely.”
NMAJH has been at the forefront of museum efforts across the country to make museums more accessible to audiences, according to NMAJH Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Interpretation Josh Perelman.
During the pandemic-induced museum shutdown, NMAJH hosted a wealth of online programming, bringing in 4 million audience members. Perelman hopes the virtual tour makes the museum even more accessible.
“The root of a project is a commitment to access and accessibility,” Perelman said. “We often think about museums as destinations — as they should be … but the knowledge, the educational potential, the exploration shouldn’t be limited just to the few who can visit.”
But now that the museum is contemplating reopening to the general public after only being available for select private events, Perelman believes that the virtual exhibits won’t replace visiting NMAJH’s physical space.
“I envision a future where museums are creating both in-person and virtual experiences with much more intentionality,” Perelman said, “blending both the experiences they offer inside their buildings with associated experiences that can be explored on the internet or any sort of device.”
NMAJH emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sept. 17 after receiving a $10 million commitment from former longtime trustee Mitchell Morgan, who bought the museum’s building and is loaning it back to the museum for $1,000 a month.
The museum is now able to prioritize its growth through innovative experiences, and the digitized exhibits exemplify NMAJH’s focus on transforming the experience of visiting a museum.
Perelman believes NMAJH can be a trailblazer on that front.
“What this really does is expands the museum’s capacity to continue to lead, to continue to be a leader in the nation for educating and interpreting experiences of American Jews,” Perelman said. “It broadens our reach and reputation at the same time.”
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