Forward-thinking Jewish museums are more than repositories of the past, says Ivy Barsky, the new executive director of the 30,000-square-foot Capital Jewish Museum, which is set to open in spring 2023.
“We do want to preserve the past, but Jewish museums and museums in general have moved much more toward being audience-centric,” says Barsky, 57.
That means a focus on “who we serve and how we serve people. So, there’s a lot of emphasis on how we tell stories and how we engage visitors in dialogue,” says Barsky, who has 30 years in the field of museum leadership, including eight years as CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
The Capital Jewish Museum, officially the Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum, promises to promote Jewish education and Jewish identity. “Visitors will be inspired to take some action to be involved, to pursue history or their own family history in some way,” Barsky says.
“So, it’s much more about audience than it is about archives, papers, objects. We do have a preservation and looking back component, but we very much have an attitude that we want visitors to be learning about the past to understand the present and move forward as Jews.”Reaching younger generations requires a doubling down on visitor engagement, she says. “Younger visitors want to hear their voices. They want to participate in the storytelling. They want to learn history with a purpose, to think about making a difference.
“I think a lot of museums are asking themselves: So this is great, this is beautiful, these are fabulous stories. But where do they get us? I think young people, especially, want to feel like they are being inspired and enlightened in order to move forward in a productive way.”
Jewish museums have evolved with different missions, Barsky says. “Some are hyper local with the particular stories they tell. But I think one of the things that we’re looking at, not just about Jews per se, but how they interact and intersect with all their complex and varied identities.”
A traveling exhibit that is bound to have broad appeal opens at the Capital Jewish Museum in March 2023. Curated by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” takes an expansive and engaging look at the Supreme Court justice’s life and work, highlighting her efforts to protect civil rights and foster equal opportunity for all Americans.
Barsky says, “We’re very excited about the potential to tell those sorts of stories in the special exhibition space.”
Barsky, who is commuting to the District from Philadelphia, where her high schooler is finishing senior year, is overseeing a $38 million capital campaign for the Capital Jewish Museum. She also helped oversee the 82,000-square-foot expansion of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.
The Jewish history of Washington and the surrounding metropolitan area is not a typical immigrant story, she says. “It’s not a port city. Almost every Jew who came to D.C. came from someplace else on the eastern seaboard. The populations ebb and flow in response to what’s happening in government. We’re not necessarily about factories and piecework. It’s very tied to our local industry, which is government. The Jewish population expanded during the New Deal and Cold War when government got bigger.”
An interactive map will allow visitors to explore different streets, neighborhoods and businesses in the nation’s capital. “Anyone who comes from the area is going to be looking at our interactive map and finding their neighborhood and its history.”
Also unusual is a Jewish community of this size being so late in the game to have a proper Jewish museum. The museum is an outgrowth of the more than 60-year-old Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which has been chronicling Jewish history from the mid-19th century through the present day.
“We’re very pleased to be able to respond to that need. There is nothing more exciting and rewarding than to bring a new museum to life,” Barsky says.