I Wanna Hear Your Story!

That's me (in blue on the left) along with my colleague Jackie Herod at the Skirball Admissions Desk. We're the smiling faces that greet visitors as they walk through the door. Be sure to say hello next time you visit!

One of my favorite parts of my job as Visitor Services Director at the Skirball is to talk with our guests and to hear their stories. I’ve always been a seeker of stories. I grew up in a big family with lots of interesting characters sharing their tales. I caught the journalism bug early, at Floyd Central High School in New Albany, Indiana, where I preferred feature assignments to the news, because that’s where you get the real scoops. Even now, I think, What’s his/her/their story?—sometimes to myself and sometimes out loud to others—when I meet someone. I’m always looking for one’s unique experience and perspective in order to make a connection.

With 2011 about to wrap up, I think back to all the fascinating people I’ve come across and the things I’ve had the chance to talk with them about.

There was the young father who came to visit Noah’s Ark at the Skirball with his wife and three children. When I asked if he’d ever visited before, he revealed that he hadn’t been to the Skirball since his prom was held here ten years ago. (I kick myself that I didn’t ask if his wife was his date that night!). Kindergarteners, meanwhile, love to tell me that Noah’s Ark is their “favorite place.” But who said Noah’s Ark is just for kids? I met a gentleman who brought his mother and their extended family–eighteen in total hailing from four generations–to celebrate her ninetieth birthday! Continue reading

The Statue of Liberty and the Hanukkah Lamp It Inspired

Manfred Anson’s Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp, made in 1985, is a beloved object in the Skirball museum collections. Here I am with the lamp in 1988, along with Uri D. Herscher, Skirball Founding President and CEO. Photo by Ellen Jaskol, Los Angeles Times.

Just a few weeks ago, the majestic Statue of Liberty celebrated its 125th anniversary. It seems like just yesterday that Lady Liberty turned 100, back in 1986. In the fall of that year, my husband, Ira, and I traveled with our sons, Dov and Ari—then aged eleven and eight—to New York City and brought them to the famed landmark. It had recently been reopened, after extensive renovations, in time for its centennial. On that sunny autumn morning, I had no idea I would be returning from Liberty Island with a Hanukkah lamp in mind.

Until 2001, visitors to the Statue of Liberty were allowed to climb to the crown. Our sons were determined to make it to the very top—154 steps in all. Exhausted though they were, it was a never-to-forget moment to take in views of the city from high above.

Dov and Ari had never been on a ship before and so they were in high spirits as we waited to board the Circle Line Tour. We had prepped the boys about our family history—all of my grandparents had immigrated to the United States as children—and we encouraged them to imagine what it might’ve been like for their ancestors to catch sight of the Statue of Liberty, after a long ocean journey, and begin to fulfill their dreams of coming to America.

Of course, as a curator, I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty Museum, which presents historical information and fascinating reconstructions. It also showcases the hundreds of different ways Lady Liberty’s image has figured in popular culture, including in posters, pennants, plates, medals, spoons, puzzles, and postcards aplenty, as well as advertisements for products ranging from cars to cookies. Continue reading

Quick… Before It Disappears!

The curtain will soon close on Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age—on view for just three more weeks. As our team prepares to return the fantastic objects we borrowed to their rightful owners, I find myself reflecting on what made it so rewarding for me.

I especially enjoyed meeting family members of some of the performers spotlighted in the exhibition.They shared amazing personal stories as well as priceless memorabilia. Les Arnold, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Leon Levy (known on stage as The Great Leon), shared a photo of Leon atop an elephant. Riding alongside him is his wife, Edythe Packard Levy (of the Packard Motor Car family), and an assistant.

The Great Leon, center, shows off his “exotic” origins in a photo that was in fact taken in New York City. On loan from Les Arnold, grandson of The Great Leon.

The photo is inscribed “Simla, India, April 24th, 1908”—but as Les explained, “Simla” was closer to the Bronx Zoo than the Taj Mahal. Leon faked the photo to pass himself off as the great Hindu fakir “Kadan Sami” and to earn a spot on B.F. Keith’s hot-ticket vaudeville circuit. In another photo, Leon is pictured in an act he called The Fakir’s Supper, also designed to transport his audience to a mystical and mysterious foreign land. In this  illusion, Leon would pull all of the items for a great banquet from the foulard over his arm! Leon passed on his love of magic to his grandson and great-granddaughter: Les and his daughter Alex continue to perform as the comedy magic duo Les Arnold and Dazzle. Continue reading

Book of Ideas, “Eddies of Calm”

Shortly after we opened the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, I was asked, “So how do you design a show based on a book of ideas?” Good question. For one thing, I didn’t do it alone but as part of a core team of designers, curators, educators, and advisors. Through a lot of discussion, a few key ideas emerged that would drive all of the exhibition design, from signage to furniture.

First, we wanted to move away from any design language that would be typical of a museum art exhibition—rigid walls, framed images, projection rooms—and strive to create “safe” environments for viewing, absorbing, considering, and discussing some very difficult subject matter. We would come to refer to them as “eddies of calm.”

Preliminary floor plans show spaces defined by gently curving walls.

Pictured here during installation, the basic structural armature creates the “eddies of calm.” The curved ceiling of Moshe Safdie’s architecture was a major influence on our design as well as our initial idea of fully utilizing the “sky” of the gallery.

Continue reading

Suzie’s Latkes

From the outside looking in, here’s a shot of my family gathered in my living room for Hanukkah. Our lighting table is by the front window for all passersby to see. What you can’t experience from this picture is… the scent of latkes filling the air!

Everyone in my family looks forward to “Suzie’s” Hanukkah party, not least of all because of my homemade latkes. I acquired the recipe years ago when my children were very young. Preparing them has become a family tradition.

For many years, my mother, Marika—born in Antwerp, Belgium, and affectionately called “Mimi” by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—would come over about two weeks before Hanukkah. Together we would fry ten pounds of potatoes, making well over one hundred latkes! When she became too old to drive, I would pick her up and bring her over. One year there was a huge rain storm on our pre-planned latke-making day. The streets were flooded, but I was not deterred. How surprised my mother was when I showed up at her door to pick her up for latke duty! Continue reading

“Ocho Kandelikas,” Reimagined

Ocho Kandelikas

Erran Baron Cohen and Yasmin Levy teamed up for “Ocho Kandelikas.” Both have performed at the Skirball in years past.

Hanukkah is almost here, and if you’re looking for a twist to your holiday playlist, here’s my recommendation: a simple yet sweet adaptation of the Sephardic song “Ocho Kandelikas,” re-arranged and produced by Erran Baron Cohen and featuring the Ladino vocals of Yasmin Levy. If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. Here’s a snippet.


This fresh take on the song hails from Baron Cohen’s 2008 album, Songs in the Key of Hanukkah (thanks to the iconic Stevie Wonder for inspiring that title). As Baron Cohen told NPR upon the CD’s release, his intention was simple: to bring new energy to the holiday by transforming a number of classic tunes associated with it and adding a few new originals. Continue reading

A Father/Daughter “Wow Moment”:
Making a Wish for Women and Girls Worldwide

Rosie, admiring Wish Canopy. How proud I was to see her wish that women and girls “become whatever they want to be.”

The first thing visible when you walk into Women Hold Up Half the Sky is the expansive “sky” that hovers above the gallery. My daughter, Rosie, the consummate twelve-year old, was immediately taken by it, which of course made me happy. As a museum professional, I lust for “wow moments” in museums, and so I was pleased that she had one right away. “This is amazing,” she said, peering over the railing of the mezzanine. “I can’t get over it.”

We made our way into the first section of the exhibition, which focuses on maternal health, and what drew her in most were the paintings and textiles made by families involved with the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Each one tells the story of a woman who perished in childbirth as a result of violence, cultural practice, or poor health care. The images, to say the least, outraged Rosie. Like most kids, she is obsessed with things being fair, and these stories seemed to illustrate just how unfair it is that there are still women who do not survive childbirth. “Horrible. Women should have all the help they need and not have to suffer,” she said with indignation. You said it, sister, I thought to myself. Continue reading

Slavery in Our Midst: One Story of Survival

Slavery In Our Midst: Maria

Maria’s is just one of several personal stories of trafficking in this book of testimonials featured in the gallery.

Today is International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, designated by the United Nations as a day to focus on how to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery and “end this scourge.”

Here in Los Angeles, the leading organization committed to ending modern-day slavery is the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), which aids women (and some men) who have been trafficked into slavery right here in our own city. The statistics CAST keeps are shocking—12.3 million people are enslaved around the world today, trafficking is a $9 billion dollar industry, and so on. But since for me the power of the book Half the Sky lies in the incredible stories (not just hard facts) that Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell, I thought it would be most impactful to invite members of CAST’s Survivor Advisory Caucus to share their real-life experiences right inside the galleries.

On Sunday, November 13, CAST members came to the galleries as our guests. I never thought I would meet a modern-day slave. About twenty-five of us listened to one survivor share her story before a live audience for the first time. A teacher in her native Philippines, Maria thought she was coming to America legally to work as a domestic helper and receive a salary of $300 a month. These wages were to help her pay off debts back home. Leaving behind her husband and kids at the age of fifty-seven in search of opportunity abroad, Maria was tricked into enslavement for almost two years in a Culver City home. Continue reading

New Markets, Centuries-Old Techniques

It’s gift-giving season, and the Skirball’s special Women Hold Up Half the Sky Holiday Pop-Up Shop is buzzing with activity. (You may have heard about it in the feature story “Handcrafted with Humanity” that appeared in the Home section of last Saturday’s Los Angeles Times.) Setting up a pop-up shop was something we’d never attempted before, and it’s been an enriching experience to learn about the hundreds of artisan groups and distributors that champion entrepreneurship for women worldwide.

Entryway to the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Entryway to the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

The first person I turned to for advice was an experienced colleague at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. She referred me to Ahdina Zunkel, the director of special projects at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market (now in its eleventh year), where more than 120 artisans from around the world—all carefully vetted to ensure they produce authentic craft—come to sell and display their handcrafts each year.

With Women Hold Up Half the Sky coming up in the fall and the idea for a related pop-up shop in mind, I attended this year’s market in July. The attendance was high and the temperature even higher! 2012 had been designated as the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives, so it was no surprise that fifty-seven women’s cooperatives exhibited.

The market was absolutely amazing. The sheer number of artists represented and the quality of their work were a treat. Language was often a barrier, but I was able to learn some of the women’s inspiring stories firsthand. Continue reading