Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | return to: news & features, national


Grand D.C. building to house national Jewish museum?

by allison hoffman, tablet magazine

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Sometime next year, the U.S. Government Services Administration is expected to announce a winning redevelopment plan for Washington’s Old Post Office, a century-old Romanesque Revival building that presides over a grand stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Bidders include big names like Waldorf-Astoria, Trump and the boutique Montage Hotels.

But there is every possibility the victor could be Hyatt Hotels, which submitted the only disclosed plan with a public component: the capital’s first museum of world Jewish history.

The National Museum of the Jewish People, as the plans call it, mentions on its website that it has support from prominent Jewish figures such as Elie Wiesel and Itzhak Perlman, as well as less-obvious supporters such as Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, Jamsheed Marker.

Julius Kaplan, a Washington lawyer who is chairman of the decade-old nonprofit devoted to the museum effort, recruited Daniel Libeskind, the architect of Jewish museums in San Francisco and Berlin, to design the D.C. structure.

A rendering of the proposed National Museum  of the Jewish People, viewed from Pennsylvania Avenue.   photo/studio daniel libeskind
A rendering of the proposed National Museum of the Jewish People, viewed from Pennsylvania Avenue. photo/studio daniel libeskind
What items might fill this particular Jewish museum, should it come to fruition, are a little harder to discern.

The project’s backers advertise a handful of existing public commitments — including a promise from Arlette Snyder, mother of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, to donate her late husband’s music memorabilia, described as “covering every genre from classical music to the Beastie Boys” — but the general curatorial approach seems to owe something to “Field of Dreams.”

If you build it, they will donate.

The museum will have to compete with the existing Judaica collections of Washington’s most august institutions, from the Smithsonian to the Library of Congress — and, for ephemera, with Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened last year.

“God forbid you create something mediocre and put it in Washington,” said Michael Berenbaum, who oversaw the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum two decades ago and is now a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

The idea man behind the museum proposal is Ori Soltes, a lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown Univer-sity, who has been fighting for an independent Jewish museum in the capital since the late 1990s. At that time he was director of the small Judaica museum held by B’nai B’rith, a no-longer-displayed collection of donations made over the years by the organization’s patrons and items held in trust for other foundations.

Soltes talks excitedly about multimedia or holographic installations that would allow visitors to bat against Sandy Koufax, and the museum project’s website mentions a similar idea for re-enacting chess matches played by Bobby Fischer. He also envisions space devoted to exhibits digitally recreating lost synagogues and temporary shows bolstered with public programs exploring the interplay between Jewish communities and the cultures into which they settled around the world.

Soltes cheerfully acknowledges that he and Kaplan don’t have much to start with by way of a permanent collection. But he seems undaunted. “There is a lot of stuff out there,” Soltes told me. “People call me all the time saying they have stuff to give.”

There is an obvious prize: the B’nai B’rith’s now-homeless collection. In the 1990s, the Klutznick National Jewish Museum occupied the second floor of the B’nai B’rith’s former headquarters in D.C. It has not been formally displayed since B’nai B’rith sold the building in 2002 and moved to smaller offices.

This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine,


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