Museums are for Everyone! – Saying Shalom to my Summer in a Jewish Museum – Delaney Kerkhof ’18

This summer I am proudly working at the National Museum of American Jewish History to help run its internship program (composed of 22 interns!) and to conduct research on the cost-effectiveness of internship programs for cultural nonprofits in comparison to those in the private sector.

When people have asked me what I am doing this summer – from the signing of my offer letter until now – I have said, “I am interning at a museum in the historic part of Philadelphia.” I have found that it is easier to say this rather than specifically say what type of museum because that tends to garner a perplexed “oh…that’s interesting…are you Jewish?” since most of the people asking me are – like me – not Jewish.

 

Fellow Princeton intern Lila Currie and I standing in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History on the corner of Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

 

I understand the confusion in working for and frequently visiting a place whose description does not apply to oneself in any way at all. I can only imagine what my Chinese and Dutch relatives back home are thinking to themselves when they hear I am spending my summer promoting the education and celebration of the American Jewish experience, about which I barely know anything.

However, after first exploring the core exhibition of NMAJH, I quickly learned that everyone can take something incredibly meaningful away from the museum. Through artifacts and interactive visitor-created story collections, NMAJH documents the history of America through the lens of the Jewish ethno-religious group – which in effect becomes a story about immigrants. The museum discusses Jewish immigrants’ journeys to America; the struggles and triumphs of assimilating their Jewish identity with their new American one; and the newly acquired freedoms they received in this land of promise.

 

One of our audience-generated interactive exhibits in which visitors choose “Yes”, “No”, or “Um” sticky notes and explain their answers to controversial questions that affect all Americans today.

 

I tell everyone I know – no matter their ethnic or religious background – to visit NMAJH because it is an impetus for great reflection on our individual freedoms as well as our past relatives’ experiences coming to America. In the same vein, I tell everyone I know – no matter their knowledge of art history – to visit the Princeton University Art Museum to use art as a vehicle for reflecting on their personal experiences.

Eminent art museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art can inadvertently turn people away because of their temple-like Beaux-Arts and Greek Revival style architecture. These institutions stand tall and imposing as their classical architecture gives them an air of prestige, elegance, and holiness. This presents the possibility of intimidation for visitors and community members who do not have a formal background in art or art history or those who have not visited an art museum before.

 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Greek Revival columns and architecture make it look like an ancient temple filled with holy relics to worship – when it simply holds art to enjoy!

 

Along with these museums, the Princeton University Art Museum is a part of the greater museum movement to make art accessible to all. The Princeton University Art Museum is a teaching museum where art does not have a capital ‘A’ and people from all backgrounds can walk in for free to simply look around the walls. Any person can enter the Princeton University Art Museum or any art museum to see objects that they will find beautiful, ingenious, funny, disturbing, confusing, and (as with me and much contemporary art) downright nonsensical.

My experiences this summer working at the National Museum of American Jewish History have confirmed my beliefs that museums are receptacles of objects that inspire reflection in everyone. Whether it be a history museum, natural science museum, or art museum, museums tell a story that initiates a broader dialogue and introspection in everyone. So wherever you are this summer, please stop by a museum to cool off while learning something about the world and about yourself.

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