Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who Tells the History?

Last week I attended the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums in Philadelphia.  There I had an opportunity to visit the new National Museum of American Jewish History.  There were many topics of interest at the conference and as the focus was on story it tied closely to the type of artwork that I do.  Museums are exploring the use of oral histories as a way to tell the story and Holocaust museums are evaluating the question of how to teach about the Holocaust when the survivors are no longer present. 

Hovering over all of these discussions is the fundamental question of who tells the history and what is the story?  Is it told differently if it is a museum focused upon the Jewish experience, the African – American experience or other museums grounded in the ethnicity that they represent?

I put that question to the test as I toured the Museum of American Jewish History.   I was curious as to how they would addressed America’s response to news of concentration camps in WWII.  They accurately noted that the State Department had willfully obstructed the flow of information about the plans of the Nazis and prevented actions being taken to rescue Jews.  Information was provided to them as early as 1942 which they not only failed to respond to, but buried.  Would this show up in a museum with a broader focus?  What about quota systems for Jews that prevented them from gaining entrance to schools solely on the basis of their ethnicity?  There is history that is uniquely told by those most affected by it and I came away feeling that this new museum did an admirable job of telling it.

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