Deputy Director Anita Kassof returned from the annual meeting of Jewish Museum colleagues, and she was kind enough to bring back this blog.
“Detroit? In February?!” That was the common response from colleagues and friends when I told them I was headed to Michigan for the annual meeting of the Council of American Jewish Museums this past week. Four MJH staffers attended the conference, where we were joined by MJH “alums” Ivy Barsky and Lou Levine.
Detroit was, indeed, chilly, but the warm reception we received from everyone from local museum directors to bus drivers more than made up for the temperature. We did a lot of motoring around the Motor City, where we toured sites as diverse as the Henry Ford Museum , the Detroit Holocaust Memorial Center, the Arab American National Museum ,and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Insofar as culture is an engine of urban renewal, Detroit appears to be poised for change.
In between whirlwind museum tours, attendees participated in some fascinating roundtables and panel discussions. We also had the opportunity to toast Melissa Martens, MJH Director of Collections & Exhibitions, who delivered thoughtful remarks when she was installed as CAJM’s new Chair. Mazel tov to Melissa, who will no doubt lead the organization with her signature enthusiasm, insight, dedication, and good old fashioned smarts.
I conducted a review of the Henry Ford Museum’s exhibition, With Liberty and Justice for All as well as chaired and moderated a session about the way that museums’ locations lend shape to their programs and exhibitions. As I pointed out in my talk, the MJH is at the nexus of important cultural and historic sites that lend meaning and depth to what we do. The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the 9/11 Memorial are natural inspirations as we develop programs and exhibitions that encourage our visitors to consider what it means to be American in a multi-cultural society and to think about the meaning of liberty in that society. The theme of location has woven through a number of MJH exhibitions, from Yahrzeit, which we installed on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and reprised on the tenth anniversary; to our 2004 exhibition, City of Refuge, in which windows overlooking New York Harbor gave us the statue and Ellis Island as living artifacts; to Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles, which concludes with a view of the statue to which Lazarus gave voice.
It’s natural, then, that the significance of location was much on my mind as we toured Detroit. In a city that’s well known for its challenges and struggles, it’s inspiring to see so many dedicated to its renewal, and so eager to welcome visitors to the hometown they love.