The Museum as a 'Cathedral'

Director of education strives to take visitors “on a life-long journey of self-discovery, understanding and learning.”

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PHILADELPHIA—Linda Steinberg, director of education at the one-year-old National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, told JointMedia News Service that she comes from a generation of museum professionals that views a museum as a “cathedral.”

What Steinberg means is not that a museum is a space for prayer, but a “place for a transformative experience.” Her goal is to create an opportunity for a visitor to make “connections through the exhibition” and continue “on a life-long journey of self-discovery, understanding and learning.”

Steinberg specifically schedules classes for museum docents in the evening. Why? To get the widest cross section of volunteers possible; Steinberg only accepted 36 of 150 applicants for her latest cohort of docents and chose not just Jews, but also Catholics and African-Americans. She likes having non-Jewish docents since they are able to bring in visitors from their own constituencies, and also because she wants to connect the Jewish story to the stories of other groups—which is crucial to the ethos of the Philadelphia Jewish museum.

Having a museum in modern-day America “means you are diverse, that you know what goes on in the world,” Steinberg said. She wants her docents not to have scripts, but to fine-tune their presentations to help visitors make connections with the collections.

Steinberg’s California sensibility and awareness of Jewish life west of the Mississippi add a flavor that has so far been missing in the Eastern-attuned museum. She comes to Philadelphia from San Francisco, where she worked with the Thomashefsky Project, a brainchild of noted conductor Michael Tilson Thomas that seeks to preserve the musical and acting legacy of his family and the Yiddish theater (http://www.thomashefsky.org/index.html).

A listing of current programs displays the connections the museum is making with visitors through programming involving dance, film, theater, art and baseball (http://www.nmajh.org/publicprograms/)—all in November alone.Steinberg said, “I’m here because Education is at the top of [the museum’s] agenda. It’s not an adjunct program; it’s central to its mission.”

That seems clear from the breadth of the audiences the museum is trying to reach, and the depth of its programs.

Posted on November 21, 2011 and filed under Arts.