Today, virtual tours have become commonplace, but this is one with a difference—it is a learning experience to explore the pluralism of the Jewish people of the past, present, and future.
There is not a virtual tour platform in any Jewish museum community in the entire world which does not tell the story about the unity and diversity of the Jewish people on a 24/7 basis. However, the ANU Museum of the Jewish People takes you on a virtual and personal journey.
ANU, singularly, tells the unique and ongoing millennia-long story in its entirety, the lights and the shadows.
If you were virtually walking through the Museum of the Jewish People with its Chief Curator, Dr. Orit Shaham Gover, and director of Museum Education, Assaf Gamzou, they would stop at any given point along your virtual journey, a seemingly insignificant, spot along with the galleries.' “Shalom, welcome to our new museum of the Jewish people. Our new museum has a new name, ANU, in Hebrew means 'we' or 'us,' where everybody is welcomed," is how they’d begin as they proceed with you an unforgettable story about the pluralism of Jewish identity.
A virtual tour in any museum of diversity needs to show their audience visual representations and audio manifestations of their history, function, identity, role, and future prospects. There is no right or wrong answer in interpreting a virtual educational or artistic exhibition. What is relevant is our collective and mutual engagement in a learning experience to understand that there will be different interpretations and/ or points of views (Davar Akher” ... דבר אחר).
Virtual visitors will engage in reflecting and speaking about what they are viewing within the virtual museum exhibition, for its aesthetics harmonizes with their personal interests. And it is through this examination of the museum’s virtual tour that we can take a moment to ponder, appreciate, and - most importantly - enhance the plurality of Jewish identity.
This interview provides you with a forty-five-minute version of my virtual tour experience with Dr. Orit Shaham Gover, Chief Curator and Mr. Assaf Gamzou, Director of Museum Education. Including, Ms. Shulamit Bahat, CEO ANU – America.
Immediately upon my meeting this brilliant team of museum leaders from Israel and New York, I was impressed by how their virtual tour and personal commentary took me on a step-by-step visual and audio journey through their new museum core exhibition building and spacious galleries.
When Dr. Shaham Gover and Mr. Gamzou suggest you trust them and let them help guide you in recounting the story of the Jewish people, it is with a great personal passion for folklore, culture and tradition, and with knowledge and insight, that they do so. They are sharing with you sound advice on what to see during their 45-minute virtual Jewish journey.
Reflecting upon museum leadership, in particular to Holocaust museums who tell the history of the Jewish people from the atrocities of World War II. What was the inspiration, motivation, and direction to create a new idea for revitalizing Jewish learning and education? What gave you the courage to step forward, to perceive a challenge to articulate a new vision, and to build a collaboration of others who will embrace and follow the vision?
Dr. Orit Shaham Gover. Holocaust museums are very important institutions that reveal what humans can do to one another and represent the darkest chapter of Jewish history. They are here to remind and tell us the most profound atrocity of our people that happened not long ago. In the second half of the 20th century we became accustomed to making the Holocaust the lenses through which we observe the whole Jewish story. Our aim at ANU is not to downplay the importance of the Holocaust but to allow visitors to get different lenses to look at the Jewish story before and after the Holocaust.
Mr. Assaf Gamzou. Well, I think of course that Holocaust commemoration and education is extremely important, so that such atrocities, hopefully, never happen again. I also believe that knowing history, and especially Jewish history, in a way that is not solely focused on misfortune is important, so that we have a solid, positive notion of our identity, a notion that does not rely on what others “did to us” or “what they think” or “they hate us, so we must…”. I believe that such a foundation is a must in contemporary Jewish education.
To appreciate the history of the Jewish people properly, all definitions or explanations must limit or set boundaries, a challenging task for any museum to succeed. However, your museum explains it simply, with the skill of a gifted teacher in a record-breaking seven and half minutes! How was this even possible?
Mr. Assaf Gamzu: Well, simplicity is the mark of brilliance and a lot of hard work! But that work was done by Orit and her curatorial team, so I’ll let her answer this question.
Dr. Orit Shaham Gover. The whole story of the Jewish people is told throughout the museum in over 7000 m2 and with a variety of museum tools, such as objects, texts, media projections and installations, artworks, interactive stations and sound. However, in one location at the entrance to the historical floor, we created a media installation that tells the whole story in 7.5 minutes. How we did it? With lots of ingenuity and creativity of people from different disciplines and… lots of humor.
One of your most recent and most impressive modern acquisitions is the personal donation from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Ms. Shulamit Bahat, CEO ANU – Museum of the Jewish People of America met with Judge Gingburg. What was this experience like?
Ms. Shulamit Bahat. It was a brilliant, beautiful day, there was a rally outside the US Supreme Court. The experience was short yet profound. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wore a mask and her hands were gloved, she kept a distance. It was held at the dawning of a new era, as it was the day I realized that an invisible foe, a virus, will change the entire world and will affect humankind. It was ominous and I felt that the unique collar and book gifted to the museum were the greatest of treasures representing civilization. Indeed, they represent a value system of a heroine, whose Jewish identity and commitment and its universal resonance and power are reflected in our display.
Walk me through how your museum organizes unique encounters with Judaism specifically for non-Jewish visitors?
Dr. Orit Shaham Gover. I believe that humans like stories and good storytelling can appeal to everyone, no matter what is his/her background. So our first task is to be able to tell a good appealing story through the museum space. There is only one wing that focuses on Judaism, the rest of the museum focuses on the Jews. And the Jews lived everywhere – in all countries, throughout all centuries and with a cultural dialogue with many of the cultures on this planet. Their history is relevant to everyone, no matter where they live and what their origins are. It is a very universal story and as such I believe is relevant to visitors of all faiths and backgrounds.
Mr. Assaf Gamzou. For me, it is starting with the simple assumption that we are all human beings, and so whoever our visitor is, this specific story can also touch them. Starting from that point of view, I try to build a tour that balances the human experience writ large: immigration, creativity and search for meaning are just some themes that anyone can relate to knowledge about the specific Jewish history. I try and connect on a personal, human level between our visitor and this complex story. If I managed to do that, with any visitor from any background, I consider the visit a success.
What was your greatest challenge as a museum leader, and what did you learn from it?
Dr. Orit Shaham Gover. Well, my greatest challenge was to create this museum… to make it interesting and relevant to all kinds of visitors and allow them to absorb its stories and content through a variety of museum tools suitable to their ways of learning and interests. I think that out of all the challenges posed to us during the creation of this museum the most complicated one was to be able to represent all - groups, cultures and identities without any biases we might have brought from home. My lesson from this journey is that we should be very aware of our own biases and check and double-check ourselves all the time: does this (or that) representation is the way this person/group would like to see him/herself in the museum or is this the way I see it through my personal lenses? I keep asking myself this question all the time.
Mr. Assaf Gamzou. My greatest challenge is every day, when children load off buses and come to the museum, not knowing where they are, why they’re there, and when they find out it’s a Jewish museum, trying to sprint for the doors! When I’m able to take these kids and make them connect and interested in what the museum has to offer, I’m good. I learned that children are curious, thoughtful and want to learn. They just need (exactly like adults, by the way) to feel that it is relevant to their lives, that there is a reason for them to be here.
Ms. Shulamit Bahat. Since I represent the museum outside of Israel, in America, my challenges are manifold: how to transmit the comprehensive story told by the museum to people who have not visited the venue in Israel; how to ensure that they visit the museum when they are in Israel. That it is "a must see," a unique cultural enterprise that will add value to their lives, as it is more than a museum, and engage them emotionally, intellectually and spiritually and inspire them to invest in it. We bring this jewel via virtual tours, a variety of forward-thinking educational/experiential programs, traveling exhibitions and programs on themes that are explored at the museum which encourages people to contemplate and engage with further.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in the creation of this new museum and why?
Dr. Orit Shaham Gover. The greatest achievement for me is that young Israeli adults (and visitors from other parts of the world) are walking around the museum with a smile and spend much longer hours than they initially expected. And they get out of the museum and say: “hey, I did not know it is so cool to be Jewish…” That they realize they are part of a much diverse and a big entity that is not located inside the borders of the state of Israel.
Mr. Assaf Gamzou. The creation is all Orit’s. I would say that now, as a museum educator, I’m not yet at the “achievement” phase. It’s now my challenge to take this wonderful new museum and enhance and enrich the experience of anyone engaging with it. So – ask me again in a few years.
Ms. Shulamit Bahat. There are many people involved in creating the museum, in addition to Orit and her team, there was the professional and lay leadership of the enterprise represented by Irina Nevzlin, chair of ANU’s board of directors, Dan Tadmor, CEO of ANU; Medy Shvide, CEO, Museum Renewal, who managed the project on time and on budget; the prominent museum designer Patrick Gallagher and his outstanding team.
My goal is to ensure that as many people as possible will be inspired and transformed by the story of the Jewish people, a people not bound by geography, as it is told through the various platforms of this innovative, global cultural, multidimensional entity.
Last but not least, grateful thanks are due to the hundreds of people who invested in the future by contributing and enabling the renewal of this major enterprise.
To quote a young visitor:
It's so inspiring, the way it travels both space and time, braiding together myriad threads of the Jewish spirit into one eternal message. We are here and our story is relevant to all.