You know me, I love a good museum. But today I went to one that was far, far over my head.
Ryan and I nipped up to West 16th Street to the Center for Jewish History – an appropriate choice, I thought, as Hanukkah is reaching its end.
And the building is a nice looking place. It’s one of those deceptively large spaces hidden along New York’s cramped streets. Inside the entrance, there were tall ceilings and high, inscribed walls.
As I checked them out, I snapped a photograph – and was immediately scolded by a security guard. This is my biggest pet peeve about museums. There is no reason to ban photographs, unless you’re using a flash. I love and respect museums, so please do not treat me like a child, you grumpy security woman you. I am a grown woman.
So we weren’t off to a great start.
The first rooms helped lift my mood, though. There was one snug room about Jewish people in Egypt (did you know there are only 50 there today?!) and, while it didn’t seem a particularly focused exhibit, there were some gorgeous photographs, inscriptions and Hebrew teaching materials.
We weren’t too sure where to go after that. There was no one around to point us in the right direction (apart from hawk-eyed, photo-hating security guards), so we wandered upstairs a little apprehensively. And we didn’t really know what to do.
To be honest, I think we felt a little overwhelmed. Like with any religion – or museum – I’d had a really open mind and was keen to learn more. But it was very alienating. One example was how I admired unbelievably beautiful and intricate silver work on items used in the Shabbat – but I had no idea of the significance or purpose of any of them. I felt like I couldn’t speak the language. Or as if I was being left out of the cool kids’ group.
We were also a bit overwhelmed because of the scope. Judaism, its adherents and its history are obviously very far-reaching and the museum seemed a bit confused about how to deal with the size of the topic. Next to a stand about Antisemitism was a case about Jewish sports players, which was overlooked by an exhibit entitled: ‘Jewish Mathematicians in German-Speaking Academic Culture.’ Agh. My mind.
After a few more glances at the exhibits, we sauntered out. Ryan rightly pointed out that this is perhaps more of a museum for scholars, so maybe that’s why we felt a little out of our depth.
I get that it was a museum about Jewish people for Jewish people, and I fully appreciate the need for that. (I suppose Jewish people would be similarly baffled at the Cloisters or a Christian museum.) But I’d been so willing to learn – and yet there were so many alien terms and concepts that I was just left to shrug my shoulders and collect my coat.
Perhaps we should have spent longer reading and considering every single word, or perhaps I should have done some more Googling. But we tried. And as much as I love museums, maybe I should just accept that not every one is going to be curated with me in mind. I’ll stick to my halls of mirrors and neon-colored frogs.
Picture credits: McKenzie Day, Wikipedia, 16th Street