As the end of the semester was coming up, I reflected on all the different museums I had already visited this semester (Guggenheim, Whitney, AMNH, Cooper Hewitt…) and what other museums I may want to visit. Upon my reflection, I noticed that most of the museums were of art or design. Although I enjoy art, I thought the next museum I’d visit would be more along the lines of where I would like to work, so I decided to go to a history museum. Perusing a list of museums, I decided to go to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Downtown Manhattan. When I exited the train, I saw that there were not many people around – partly because of it being Sunday and partly because of the extreme winds. However, when I got to the museum I realized that the winds had not stopped people visiting as the place was packed. When I got to the front desk I found out a few things: the first floor of the museum was closed for exhibition changes; the admission had switched to suggested donation; there was a completely free new exhibit that I had not heard of; and the museum did not have an app, but they did have audio guides (in over 8 languages) available for an extra cost.
After thinking about where I wanted to start, new exhibit or permanent collection, I chose to start on the 2nd floor with the permanent collection. The moment I walked through the doors of the elevator I realized that this was not going to be a quiet, reflective museum experience. The high volume of noise that immediately hits you as you enter makes a person think shouldn’t people be quite and respectful? But when I walked though the doors I realized that the noise was not because people were joking around or doing whatever, but rather there were active groups having discussions and connecting the information and exhibits in front of them to what they knew about the Holocaust. There were many groups of parents walking with their children, and groups of adults walking around. Most of these private groups were small, none larger then 4 people. There was a museum educator taking a family group of seven through the exhibit, She was not asking questions, but rather putting in bits of information to keep the conversation going between the parents and the kids in the group.
The museum offers an all-around full senses experience. There was music playing from speakers in each room, so that there were no quiet areas, except for a few intentionally quiet reflective areas. Additionally, there were many TV screens that were casting either videos of what happened or the recorded testimonials of the survivors who lived through and had sat down to record for posterity what they had lived through. While movies were catching people’s attention, it did not take away their attention from other jarring images. What was a little surprising was that many people stood/sat in front the longer videos and watched them throughout. One group that I watched sat through the full 6-minute video. Additionally, all the movies that were playing, regardless of language, had subtitles on the bottom of the screen in English. But it wasn’t only the music and video playing that added to the atmosphere, the walls itself – those that did not house information or artifacts – were integrated into the exhibit by having images as wallpaper. Each room had a different subject and that subject had related pictures as the wallpaper. In addition to everything else going on, it was clear that English was not the only language being spoken. There were many volunteer tour guides leading groups. In the two hours that I was by the museum I was able to distinguish at least 7 different languages: English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, German and Chinese.
I got to the end of the permanent collection and saw that there was a group of 25 kids that were sitting on the floor and working, so I decided to observe them and see what they were doing. What I discovered was that they were from a Jewish Sunday School program, and that the curricula that they had worked out with the museum concluded with the exercise that they were doing now. They had separated into groups of three and each picked a different object in the exhibition to report and present on, explaining what they chose and why. They were first asked about their objective observations of the object and then if they felt a personal connection. Followed by why this object stood out to them. Some kids stood at attention and were very interested while others just claimed they were tired and wanted to sit in the corner and relax. The teacher in connection with the museum educator tried to stress the connection between the people that had survived the entirety of their persecution 60 years ago with how these in today’s world still had a connection even if they didn’t happen to be Jewish.
Then I walked through the divider between the permanent collection and the Leo Frank exhibit where I passed by a very interesting semi- interactive exhibit. The exhibit titled Voices of Liberty had an outside art component that the artist literally grew trees through the middle of huge boulders. The interactive part of this exhibit consisted of two consoles that let the user jump through the timeline “fast- forwarding” and watching the seedling go through the rock and grow. This illustration was meant to show that although the seemingly impossibility and hardships this little seedling was able to break through the impossible to survive.
On a whole, the museum surprised me. It wasn’t the quiet and reflective place that I thought it would be. Nonetheless, this was a pleasant surprise because personally, I would rather have people discussing everything out loud and having conversations, then having just internal thoughts and not connecting them with other people, which while also being good is just not the same.