The National Museum of American Jewish History’s new location offers diverse exhibits that highlight experiences of Jewish-American people from 1654 to present day.
For decades, many Jewish-Americans have felt the stories of their ancestors have gone untold. Now, the National Museum of American Jewish History aims to finally express the Jewish American saga through the completion of its new state-of-the-art facility, on Independence Mall in Old City.
The museum plans to engage its visitors through interactive and unique exhibits that explore the religious, cultural, political and economic stories of American Jews, and after nearly a decade of preparation, the five-story, 100,000-square-foot museum will finally open its doors to the public on Friday, Nov. 26.
“We tell the story of the American Jewish experience in its entirety from 1654, when Jews first arrived on this continent, to present day, and we are the only museum anywhere dedicated exclusively to telling that story,” NMAJH President Michael Rosenzweig said last week. “We view this as filling a void that has existed until now, and we’re thrilled to be able to fill that void.”
The Mikveh Israel Congregation, a historical Philadelphia synagogue at 44 N. Fourth St., created the museum in 1976, displaying approximately 40 artifacts. However, the collection eventually outgrew its limited space, and the museum’s board of directors decided to expand the museum.
While architect James Polshek had been hired to undertake the project and the museum’s old location was ready for reconstruction, the board became aware that a new site was available for purchase at 101 S. Independence Mall East. Despite the initial plans, Rosenzweig said the board felt it could not pass up the opportunity to move to a more historical location.
“This museum tells a story of freedom, and the theme of freedom is really the core story of our exhibition,” Rosenzweig said. “Because the story we tell is a story of freedom, it was compellingly appropriate that we be located on Independence Mall.”
With a $150 million budget at his disposal, Polshek remained the project’s architect and developed a striking new exterior design, constructed of glass and terracotta.
“It is what you would call an in-your-face site. There can be no subtlety to it, and there is no subtlety to its design either,” Polshek said. “The glass volume was important, and in my mind, from the beginning, this was meant to represent a welcome. Its transparency or translucency says that all of you are welcome here.”
The exterior of the museum is now complete with two sculptures – the 19th century “Religious Liberty” marble monument and the modern LED-lighted sculpture “Beacon,” which will glow from the museum’s glass façade.
While the building’s exterior is remarkable, the interior design is just as impressive. The museum is organized chronologically with each floor representing a different period in Jewish American history. Each exhibit consists of a blend of historical artifacts, interactive technology and realistic environments.
The museum’s hundreds of historical artifacts include everything from antique Jewish menorahs to Albert Einstein’s pipe, and the interactive exhibits include the use of high-resolution touch screens and other modern technologies.
“The building, the story and the execution are flawless and seamless, and the visitors will find themselves enveloped in ways that they’ve never experienced before in a museum,” exhibition designer Patrick Gallagher said. “You will hear stories that are familiar to you, and we want you to do one thing on your way out the door. Leave your story with us.”
In the “It’s Your Story” exhibit, visitors are invited to sit in a recording booth and leave their own family stories to be played for others visiting the museum. Story prompts include questions such as, “Where are your ancestors from?”
In a similar exhibit, the “Contemporary Issues Forum,” visitors have the opportunity to answer some modern ethics questions, such as, “Should religion play a role in politics?” by writing their answers on Post-it notes or scanning them into a computer.
While these specific exhibits may seem exclusively geared towards adults, the museum plans for the majority of the exhibition to be “family-friendly” or “intergenerational.” Children’s exhibits include opportunities to try on traditional clothing such as masks.
“I found all of the interactive stuff most interesting,” said volunteer guide Amanda Dinan, who is a Temple senior. “I know if I was still a little kid and got to play with a lot of stuff they have set out, it would definitely be the best part.”
“I was really excited for the city that there was such a great museum coming, and I wanted to be a part of it in whatever way I could,” Dinan added. “This gives Temple students another option to go out and learn more about the people in our community and their families and history.”
The museum not only plans to attract college students like Dinan but also plans to build a mutually beneficial relationship with Philadelphia universities.
“Partnerships with universities are critical,” Rosenzweig said. “We are blessed to be in Philadelphia with so many unbelievable universities and, in particular, universities with great Jewish studies programs. We are already collaborating with Temple and Penn, and we will expand those collaborations as we move along.”
“For example, Friday’s symposium is co-sponsored by the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple and the Jewish Studies Department at Penn,” he added. “We will have more of those kinds of collaborations.”
Although the museum does not open to the public until Nov. 26, its grand opening festivities took place this weekend, which included performances by special guests Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler. Vice President Joe Biden then led the Grand Opening ceremony on Sunday.
“We are living today in the era of the greatest freedom and greatest propriety that the Jewish people has ever enjoyed, which makes this chapter critically important in the story,” Rosenzweig said. “We’re very proud at the National Museum of Jewish American History that we have the opportunity to tell it.”
Jeffrey Janiczek can be reached at email@example.com.