A Decade in Museums
Ed. Note: I owe you all two posts in the “museums in cool buildings” series, NPG/SAAM and the National Building Museum. Being knocked out with migraines for two of the last three days wasn’t conducive to blogging constructively, so here, enjoy a fluffy filler piece for now. -Elissa
I couldn’t let this summer pass me by without noting that this is my 10th summer as a “museum person.” (Given that I’m turning 25 next month, that’s a long time to be in museums.) Other than one wonderful summer spent working at a cooking school, I’ve volunteered, interned, or worked for a museum, historical society, or archive since 2002. It all started at the Peerless Rockville Historical Society in beautiful downtown Rockville, a five-minute drive or 10-minute bike ride from my parents’ house, where I was a camp counselor and amateur cartographer looking at Rockville’s recent past. At the time, it was a great way to learn about my hometown and do something fun and educational while I was getting ready to start my junior year in high school.
Since then, I’ve worked as an educator, archivist, historian, researcher, finding aid writer, grant writer, publicity coordinator, docent, docent coordinator, and general cheerleader from the Naval Historical Center at the DC Navy Yard to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, Austria. But the real reason why this story bears telling is because of what happened five years ago this summer.
Five years ago this summer, I was studying German in Munich under the auspices of my alma mater and the Goethe Institute. Our group took a side trip to Berlin for a weekend, where we stayed in a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”-themed hostel (no, really) and ate a lot of gelato. Our first night there was a Friday. As we were walking back to the hostel, we got slightly turned around and wound up heading down a side street. And suddenly, there it was.
Rising out of a copse of trees, there was a golden dome crowned with a Magen David. Here in the middle of Berlin. Fascinated, I ran to look at what it was. A working synagogue and a Jewish museum? What in the world was a Jewish museum? It being Shabbat, the museum was closed the next day, but on Sunday morning I skipped out (whoops) on the activity we were supposed to be doing and returned, alone, to Oranienburgerstrasse.
It was there that I first learned of the politics of displaying Jewish objects, of talking about both a destroyed Jewish population and a living contemporary one in a single breath, of the many ways to cast a memorial to a synagogue in ruins even as it rises, new-born, from its ashes. I prayed. I cried. I was hooked. (I haven’t been able to find a photograph of the columns that ring what used to be the sanctuary, which was bombed by the Soviet Union after the war after it had already been set ablaze during the November Pogrom, but that was the view that affected me the most.)
When I got back to school in the fall, I applied for a Princeton Summer Work Program internship at the Jewish Museum of Vienna, was accepted, and spent three months learning what Jewish museums mean to German- and English-speaking visitors (hint: two very different things) and how education works in a museum. My senior thesis took me back to Germany’s Jewish museums, some large and new-built, as in Munich, others very small and using old synagogues, as in tiny Veitshöchheim, where the synagogue had been a fire station and art museum before its conversion into a Jewish museum. Eager to continue my research, I applied for an internship with the Senior Historian at the Holocaust Museum. And here I am, three years later.
Moral of the story: look up. Always, always look up. If I’d missed that dome, or taken a different street home, goodness knows what I’d be doing today. Here’s to the first ten years; here’s to the next ten, and the ten after that. Thanks for taking this journey with me, friends.