What is the future of Jewish museums? Our evolving social, technological and economic landscape is impacting and challenging all museums’ identities and survival. At the same time, recent tragic events around the globe remind us that political, social and technological forces also impact and challenge Jewish identity, practice and survival. How can Jewish museum staff, volunteers and people of all cultural and religious backgrounds respond and lead their organizations and peoples into the future?
These questions framed this year’s gathering of over 150 professionals for the annual Council on Jewish American Museums meeting, aptly titled “Open Source: Jewish Museums and Collaborative Culture,” and held in the San Francisco Bay Area in early March 2015. Among the attendees and speakers were University of San Francisco museum studies alumna Mariah Shevchuk and professors Marjorie Schwarzer and Paula Birnbaum.
Opening remarks by Nina Simon, director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, and Rabbi Noa Kushner, of the Kitchen, San Francisco’s indy havorat, pointed to an outward-looking practice that invites diverse voices to the table to build bridges between people and communities. Nik Honeysett, director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, and Keir Winesmith, Head of Web and Digital Platforms at SFMOMA, described ways that new digital technologies can facilitate this interaction. At the same time, representativesof Holocaust memorial museums in places like Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago pointed to the need to document the past and use history as a means of providing insight and tools for combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and terror, all too present today.
Skyping in from Jerusalem, the noted scholar Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett showed how the recently-opened Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland is accomplishing both imperatives.
“Brainstorming the Future of Jewish Museums” was the title of a closing session chaired by Zachary Paul Levine, chief curator of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington DC. Given the theme of the conference, Levine was concerned that too much faith in technology and the participatory economy threaten to undo the collections and curatorial knowledge that undergirds museums. He is also sanguine about the viability of the current economic model and wonders how Jewish museums will attract and retain a committed and talented workforce in the future.
To open up a discussion on these issues, Levine invited Marjorie Schwarzer and recent USF museum studies graduate Mariah Shevchuk to contribute their perspectives. The brainstorming session also featured Joni Blinderman of The Covenant Foundation and Jenna Joselit of George Washington University who reminded attendees that these concerns are timeless and have been expressed for many decades in the museum field.
A lively and wide-ranging conversation ensued that could have easily extended beyond the allowed timeframe. Marjorie recorded the group’s thoughts on several flip charts and contributed her perspective of optimism about the skill, depth and inventiveness of the new generation of professionals entering the field. As a representative of that new generation, Mariah spoke eloquently about her commitment to Jewish museums but underscored the need for more openness and new kinds of programs to appeal to people of mixed and multiple heritages. Despite all of the very real challenges expressed, the overall conclusion was optimistic.
As Levine concluded, “this type of conversation is part of a much larger evolution of our institutions, be they museums, graduate programs, cultural organizations, or non-profits more generally. Our discussion provoked conversation that could, in some part, serve as a synthetic experience for the conference’s participants. I think we were successful, and I received several positive reactions following the panel.”
For more information on University of San Francisco’s graduate program in Museum Studies, click here.