30 AJS Perspectives
have included museums in my teachingthroughout my career as a professor of Jewish studies. Museums ﬁgure in coursesI offer not only on Jewish art but also on Jewsand media, Holocaust remembrance, Yiddishculture, and ethnography of contemporaryJewish life. I consider museums especiallyrich pedagogical resources, and they haveprovided my students with some of theirmost engaging experiences with the study of Jewish culture.To some extent my ability to includemuseums in my teaching is a matter of geography. Rutgers, my current university, islocated about an hour from New York City,where more than a half-dozen museumsof interest can be found; there are relevantmuseums in New Jersey and Pennsylva-nia, and even a trip to Washington, D.C. ispossible. In addition, other nearby museums,galleries, or historical societies, including theuniversity’s own art museum, occasionallymount exhibitions dealing with some topicrelated to my courses. Yet even without thisadvantage, Jewish museums would ﬁgure inmy teaching. Indeed, it has become increas-ingly easy to study museums without actuallyvisiting them.Following are suggestions for incorpo-rating museums in Jewish studies courses;these suggestions apply not only to the sortof classes I teach on modern Jewish culturebut can be related to a wide range of coursesin the ﬁeld.
To take full advantage of the museum visit, I approach it as an oppor-tunity to teach not only about the contentof a museum’s displays, but also about themuseum itself as a cultural medium anda public institution. Therefore, thoughmost museums offer docents to take classesthrough exhibitions, I generally prefer toask students to visit an exhibition on theirown (this is also often easier to facilitate,given students’ busy schedules). Before theirvisits, I provide students with targeted, yetopen-ended, questions for them to considerabout the exhibition and the museum itself.I ask them to look at the form of museumdisplay—how objects are arranged, howspace is conﬁgured, the choices of color,material, and texture made by the exhibitiondesigner—and to consider how this relatesto the content of an exhibition. I also askthem to consider museum-going as a socialpractice, by paying attention to how othervisitors engage the exhibition and lookingat how museums complement exhibitionswith public programs: lectures, ﬁlm screen-ings, live performances, etc. In addition, Iask students to look for discussion of theexhibition in reviews or blogs, especiallyif it has provoked controversy. Typically,museum visits are followed by a class dis-cussion, allowing students to hear whattheir classmates discovered on their visits,as well as an analytic writing assignment.Whenever possible, I try to arrangefor students to meet with a museum pro-fessional. In addition to staff educators,other personnel—including archivists,conservators, curators, and designers—areoccasionally willing and able to meet withstudents, either at the museum or in myclassroom. The opportunity to hear howexhibitions are put together is an invaluablelesson, demonstrating how the curatorialprocess works. Sometimes, this informa-tion is available in other forms: exhibitioncatalogs, museum websites, press coverage.
2. Virtual visits.
A class can study a museumor an exhibition even when it is inaccessible(or has closed), thanks to documentationprovided in museum publications, reviews,scholarly analyses, and especially museumwebsites, which now frequently archiveInternet versions of past exhibitions as wellas provide material on current ones. It is espe-cially instructive to have students considerthe online version of an exhibition in relationto the actual display in order to understandhow these two different media provideinformation and engage the public. Virtualvisits to museums can facilitate comparisonsthat would be difﬁcult, if not impossible,for students to make with actual trips tomuseums—for example, comparing how dif-ferent Holocaust museums use the mediumof display to present the Holocaust narra-tive and how they relate it to other topics(Jewish history, American history, Zionism,World War II, prejudice reduction, genocideprevention, etc.). Some museums have devel-oped sophisticated use of the Internet as aninteractive medium. For example, FrancescoSpagnolo, director of research and collec-tions at the Judah L. Magnes Museum inBerkeley, California, has initiated the JewishDigital Narrative project, which invitesvisitors to the museum’s website to explorematerials from its archive, add commentsto curated online displays of these items,and even fashion their own narratives withthem (www.magnes.org/narratives.htm).
Teaching Jewish Studies with Museums
“Author listening to talking kiddish cup in the Jewish Children’s Museum,Brooklyn.” Photo credit: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.