A New Curriculum For a New Museum


By Howard Shapiro

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.
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Linda Steinberg had worked in Philadelphia previously, for a short time, but she didn’t remember the summer heat. When she came back to town a few weeks ago, to a job at the new National Museum of American Jewish History, it was a hot day — upward of 100 degrees. For Steinberg, the contrast with much milder San Francisco, the city she’d just left, amounted to weather shock.

Educator: Linda Steinberg
Educator: Linda Steinberg

The Philadelphia heat was, in fact, a fitting welcome. It dissipated quickly, but the heat for the new education director of the nation’s newest museum is a constant, likely to rise as the days move along to its November 14 opening, capping a weekend of events. Steinberg is responsible for creating and overseeing the museum’s curriculum in many formats, drawn from a trove that is the institution’s ample collection.

Eleven hundred artifacts, about 2,250 images, 30 different media presentations and 32 galleries: These are the foundation of the museum’s permanent collection and the source for a number of education programs that Steinberg will helm. Some of the programs will begin when a visitor walks through the doors; others are as far removed from the museum’s new building as a virtual connection on the Internet will take someone. Typical on-site visitors will interact with Steinberg’s docents — a group of volunteers whose training amounts to a year’s intensive course in Jewish studies — who escort them through the collection.

“Thirty-two galleries, and you could actually come back 32 times, it’s such a full experience,” Steinberg said. “My job now is to take the docents and talk to them. They’re not there to give a history lesson, and the exhibits are not there to be the same as reading a history book. It’s not a book on a wall. I’ve always had the sense of the museum being more like theater than archival.

“What comes next? What lurks around the corner? If done well, a museum is paced like a good play, with a sense of drama. I want the docents to have that sense of drama, to know what it is to inspire a person to come back and, when people leave the museum, to study even further.”

You can walk into any museum on the planet and peruse what you want the way you want to — but most people expect more than an isolated, private experience. Thus, Paris’s Louvre, for example, has long offered different levels of tours, as well as printed guides, for people who want anything from only the top five or so attractions to an in-depth view of one portion of one gallery.

These are the sort of materials Steinberg must develop, different ideas about what to target and how to communicate what’s being targeted. She’ll have a public-program component — special events or productions at the museum, or possibly at other locations — and a school component for students who visit or who simply use museum-created study kits in their classrooms.

“We want to continue to evolve as a real center for studying American Jewish history,” she said. “I don’t know of another institution doing that right now. The diversity in terms of Jews is so extensive. How do we make this work in Seattle? In San Francisco? Toronto? It’s going to take one-to-one sitting down with academics, asking, ‘How do we tweak this so it’s meaningful for you to put into your curriculum?’”

The National Museum of American Jewish History opened in 1976 in a space it has shared, until now, with the venerable Congregation Mikveh Israel, itself a part of American Jewish history. Its new 100,000-square-foot, five-story home is a block away, on Independence Mall, in Center City Philadelphia directly across from the Liberty Bell. It is altogether different from the old museum, containing both a permanent exhibition built on new concepts and a new collection.

Steinberg, 53, worked at the old museum when she researched, interpreted and then designed its 10th-anniversary exhibition in 1986. At the time, she created teaching tools and outreach programs. She also has held positions at the University of Judaism (now, American Jewish University), in Los Angeles and at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, and has consulted for several other museums, including New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Among her passions is the Thomashefsky Project, the arts organization dedicated to researching and preserving documents pertaining to the lives of American Yiddish theater pioneers Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, grandparents of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom Steinberg works closely. Steinberg is continuing as founding executive director and vice president of the project, which is planning a traveling exhibition.

Her interest in the project, she says, is the same for the new museum: the relevance of the material to Jews today. “The challenges,” she said, “are finding the connections.”

The vision, said Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum, “is that in addition to being a national destination museum and the only museum dedicated exclusively to telling this story of American Jewish history from 1654 to the present, that we also be a national center for education and a Jewish cultural center. Our aspiration, with respect to the education piece, is fairly grand. The reality is, there is no central educational institution with respect to American Jewish history.”

Howard Shapiro is a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and also writes about travel.

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