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What Makes A Museum Good?

What Makes A Museum Good?

This week, I wrote about the retirement of The Jewish Museum’s director Joan Rosenbaum, who’s led the museum for 30 years. But the story of her career raises a few fundamental questions that The Jewish Museum, and indeed all ethnic museums, must grapple with: Should ethnic museums advance the consensus opinions of their constituent group, or should they challenge those beliefs? And if the latter, where do you draw the line?

Rosenbaum has taken the more aggressive approach, mounting exhibits that usually thought-provoking and challenging–but hardly ever sensational for its own sake. She’s been roundly praised for this, and it’s to her credit that The Jewish Museum now stands on par with New York’s major cultural institutions, from the MoMA and, though obviously much smaller, the Met.

I’m no expert on museums, but one of the experts I talked to–Jenna Weisman Joselit, a cultural historian now at George Washington University–has an excellent take on the question here. She reviews the newest Jewish museum, the National Museum of American Jewish History, which recently opened in Philadelphia. Her basic argument is that a good museum shouldn’t just dazzle you with exquisite objects, wonderful art or even a convincing argument. It should make you think about every thing you see–provoke thought, in other words, not dictate it.

As she puts it: "A successful museum, Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard University literary critic, once wrote, shuttles conscientiously between evoking a sense of wonder on the part of its visitors and generating a sense of resonance. Wonder stops you dead in your tracks; resonance makes you think. Wonder is arresting; resonance connects the dots. You need them both. At the National Museum of American Jewish History, wonder is to be had in spades; resonance is in short supply—and I, for one, keenly felt its absence. I would have liked to have come away having thought about an object or a moment or a phenomenon in a way that I hadn’t before."

And on a side-note, I found the juxtapostion between the new American Jewish History museum–organized around the idea of freedom, and how American Jews have benefited from it–opens almost exactly the same time as The President’s House, the Philadelphia museum right across it in Independence Mall. It highlights slavery, and how America’s Founders both made freedom a core tenet of the new nation while also keeping a fifth of their population in chains. The irony makes you wince.

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