a resource for museums, cultural sites and educational centers in the U.S. and Europe
Months into the global pandemic, it is clear that Jewish cultural life in North America faces an unprecedented crisis. What is less clear is how we intend to empower Jewish cultural institutions to emerge from this crisis in a position of strength.
Over the past two decades, I have had the privilege of leading, supporting, and advancing Jewish museums—where diverse audiences of all ages are invited to discover and explore Jewish history, celebrate culture, and remember the Holocaust. It is painful to picture the locked doors, darkened galleries, and empty classrooms of our current moment. Whether we are lay leaders, philanthropists, professionals, or community members, our collective challenge is to envision what comes next.
Though the organized Jewish communal world is banding together in remarkable ways—including through the creation of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund—Jewish museums’ needs remain staggering. Important Jewish cultural institutions have long struggled to innovate, raise funds, and remain relevant. The challenges Jewish museums faced in the best of times were formidable. The present emergency has exacerbated those problems.
After all, “this pandemic is the remover of all illusions. It is a sudden opening-up of the windows and seeing what really is” (as noted by Jessica Orkin when discussing the future of business). At this moment, we need to have the guts to take a close look; it is the first step toward exerting positive change.
Many Jewish museums went into this emergency already teetering on the cliff of financial ruin and shouldering the twin burdens of dysfunctional governance and ineffectual management. The drastic effects of the current crisis are shaking the entire field, and they will topple the institutions that have repeatedly failed to address foundational problems.
The American Alliance of Museums, UNESCO, and the International Council of Museums have sounded the alarm that COVID-19 may push a number of museums into permanent closure. Those that make it through will have to find pathways that transcend pre-pandemic “business as usual.” They must strive to establish and maintain good governance, close widening innovation gaps, produce high-quality digital content for an increasingly global audience, engage younger Jewish Americans, and confront a resurgence of antisemitism—in the dangerous context of weakening global norms, widening national and sectarian wars, and increasing instability worldwide.
How can museums dedicated to Jewish history and culture, American Jewish experience, and Holocaust education navigate the present crisis so that they emerge ready for the future? To begin to answer this question, we must seek the input of a highly qualified but often unsung group—the hidden innovators. These museum professionals, at all levels of their careers, have a proven track record of big ideas, insightful thinking, inventive systems, and impactful programs.
Museums are making difficult decisions to cut staff and reduce salaries. But we need talented innovators more than ever. In re-imagining museum professionals’ work—and giving them what they need to build the future—we can at once support our professional community and get started on meaningful change.
Jewish museums' educational missions impart not only knowledge but also responsibility. They are not merely students of history; they are history-makers. These museums present struggle and achievement, preserve and protect the physical embodiments of thousands of years of history—and serve both local and global communities not only to engage with history, but also to consider its relevance to the present.
Leveraging innovative ideas in the Jewish museum space is both urgent in the short term and necessary for the long-term development of the field. The goal is not only for museums to make it through, but also to emerge better able to engage, educate, and inspire. This will require organizing around audiences and pivoting to new program ideas (with a focus on connecting people across greater distance), developing visionary strategies, and facilitating collaborations and partnerships across institutions to push the boundaries of “what’s possible.”
Now is also the time for Jewish museums to recommit themselves to our unwavering determination to promote tolerance and understanding—especially in times of violence and loss. Together we must shoulder the burden of memory and ensure that future generations will have an opportunity to gather together to remember, to reflect, and to learn.
If we approach this intense disruption as an opportunity to re-evaluate the norm and set a new standard, we will give our Jewish museums and cultural institutions a fighting chance.
Michael S. Glickman
Celebrating the promise of a nation, organizations from around the country are showing the ways in which history deserves our collective attention, pride, and celebration. Led by the National Museum of American Jewish History, and presented in partnership with 50 museums, cultural centers, libraries, historical societies and communal organizations, you’ll be treated to fresh takes on American Jewish history and culture.
Though Jewish American Jewish Heritage Month, a visitor can chart a course through the lesser-known stories behind treasured customs, surprising traditions, popular foods, and trailblazing superstars alongside important accounts of opportunities and challenges in the American landscape, social upheavals and cultural encounters, and unexpected triumphs. Conceived in liberty and dedicated to human equality, Jewish American Heritage Month highlights organizations that interpret American history, transmit its relevance, and maintain a Jewish soul.
Museums rely on philanthropy, visitation, and membership to support their existence – a situation which has been thrown into crisis by the worldwide pandemic that impacts all of us. At no other time in recent memory has the whole of the cultural world faced such crisis (and the possibility for innovation and action). Leveraging essential ideas in the museum space is now more urgent than ever and the survival of these institutions is paramount.
To help facilitate this unprecedented effort, jMUSE has partnered with the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) to help advance the field. Though a new series of virtual sessions with thought leaders, jMUSE and CAJM are working to 1) talk through survival strategies at this unprecedented time, 2) discuss best use of resources, and 3) ultimately empower museums to be more relevant and impactful.
Interested in participating, please email email@example.com.
Designed for cultural organizations in need of immediate fundraising and scenario planning, public relations, and crisis management assistance during this extraordinary moment. Organizations with a budget of $3 million or less are eligible. Submit a brief request detailing your needs to firstname.lastname@example.org.