Ivy Barsky: Judaism Unbound Episode 158 - Curating the Jewish Story

Ivy Barsky, the CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about what Jewish museums are, why they matter, and the impact they are having on contemporary Jews. This episode is the third in a series of episodes on art, creativity, preservation, and museums, brought to you in partnership with The Council of American Jewish Museums. [1] [2]

0:01 - 15:23: Ivy Barsky begins this episode by describing the function of a museum in modern life, explaining that the role of a museum is to help the public explore what it is to be human through arts, sciences, and culture. Museums also take on an interpretive function, making the past accessible. She then moves on to discuss the concept of a “Jewish Museum,” and the National Museum of American Jewish History in particular. Barsky posits that one of the challenges of a Jewish Museum is communicating stories to a wide variety of audiences with differing levels of background knowledge, many of whom are often not Jewish. Here, the conversation shifts towards questions of curation, which is full of many “hard choices” about whose voices and narratives to display in the process of crafting stories. [3] Barsky says that these decisions are often driven by the materials and artifacts available to curators, which she calls “star-tifacts”; striking artifacts that might “star” in an exhibit and tell a story well.

15:24 - 28:30: Barsky briefly offers perspective on the importance of Jewish History for contemporary American Jews, especially as it pertains to traditions of lay leadership. She observes how the role of curation has an impact on which stories survive and which are lost to history. While many people may have “star-tifacts” that could preserve histories, Barksy explains that regular people often have different understandings of what material culture is significant than historians or curators, leading many people to believe that they don’t have meaningful materials to donate to museums and archives. However, Barsky says that many objects are “witnesses” to history. [4] This is why the “star-tifact” objects that she discusses are an important, substantive, and memorable part of exhibits - when we see them, we remember them.

28:30 - 47:30: Barsky discusses a handful of significant “star-tifacts” in her museum’s collections, such as a letter of recommendation written Leonard Bernstein’s Rabbi for Bernstein’s Harvard Application and a letter from George Washington, written to Moses Seixas, a Jewish-American immigrant in the late 1700s. [5] She raises the cultural significance of these letters for Jews creating a new life in America. Barsky reflects on the dual, and perhaps contrasting, roles of museums, serving as both a window into the past and a glance at the potential future. Barsky uses the example of the “Sara Berman’s Closet” exhibition, to be featured on the Liberty Mall. The episode ends with a discussion of the new and expansive modalities of museums today, which often provide commentary about contemporary issues, such as the Tenement Museum’s role in discussing modern American immigration [3]. how much of curation is about wrestling with telling both the good stories and the hard stories. Barsky finishes by declaring that the mission of the Jewish Museum is not to say “how great we are, but how grateful we are.”

[1] Learn more about the National Museum of American Jewish History at NMAJH.org. For more information about the Council of American Jewish Museums, head to CAJM.net. Find a Jewish museum near you by clicking here.

[2] Judaism Unbound recently released a number of bonus episodes, featuring scholars of American Jewish history, which were recorded in the exhibition of the museum that Barsky directs. You can listen to them at this link.

[3] Barsky briefly mentions Isaac Leeser, and the important role he played in American Jewish history. Learn more about him here.

[4] Dan alludes to a Judaism Unbound episode featuring Ruby Namdar, on the question of tangible ritual versus intangible ideas. Listen to that conversation here: Episode 153: Fiction Between Worlds - Ruby Namdar.

[5] Learn more about Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport here. For the text of the “Richmond Prayer,” which Barsky alluded to (crafted to pray for the American government by a Richmond, VA congregation in the 18th century), click here.

[6] Click here for more information about “Sara Berman’s Closet” — a 2019 NMAJH special exhibition.