It was a Tuesday morning and a group of summer interns and new hires were gathered in the lobby. We were waiting to tour the Skirball’s permanent exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America guided by the extremely knowledgeable Museum Director, Dr. Robert Kirschner. As one of only two Multicultural Undergraduate Interns, funded by the Getty Foundation, lucky enough to work at the Skirball this summer, I had the pleasure of going on this exclusive walkthrough. The tour began with Dr. Kirschner’s passionate remarks about the Skirball’s beginnings, the Skirball’s President and CEO, Uri Herscher (with whom I’ve met on multiple occasions and who is absolutely wonderful!), and Dr. Kirschner’s personal dedication to the museum.
Most importantly, he spoke of the Skirball mission as a Jewish institution that welcomes both Jews and non-Jews. As I enter the final days of my Skirball internship, I am more and more convinced that everyone is welcome here regardless of a person’s culture, religion, or race.
When Dr. Kirschner guided us to the entrance of the exhibition, I stood face-to-face with a simple yet powerful statement: “Go forth…and be a blessing” [The writer of this LA Times article about the opening of the Skirball in 1996 took note of this detail as well.] He urged us to look beyond the biblical context of the passage (it’s from the Book of Genesis) and to view it as a philosophy about inclusivity and universality—a philosophy by which all of us should aspire to live, one that encourages people of all cultures to be a blessing in the world and to all humankind. What I loved most was that this message is physically and philosophically ingrained into the Skirball’s foundations.
We walked a few steps ahead and there I saw one of the Skirball’s most prized possessions. A beautifully sewn object displayed behind glass beckoned me to take a closer look. Dr. Kirschner explained that it was a Torah case. When I was close enough to read what’s embroidered in the fabric, I became even more fascinated. Similar to the passage engraved in stone at the entrance, this object carried a biblical passage (this time from Leviticus) with a universal message: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” These words, it turns out, are also written on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a truly American treasure.
Recently I had the opportunity to learn more about this Torah case when I spoke with Adele Lander Burke, VP of Learning for Life, who oversees the Skirball docent program. She told me that in place of the object currently on view, there used to be a Torah scroll open to the exact same verse. But the Skirball decided that the Torah case, with its red, white, and blue motif and message about freedom, was more symbolic of the American values and ideals that are central to the Skirball mission. I also learned that the light tan color of the scroll image was meant to represent the lyrics “amber waves of grain” from “America the Beautiful.” All of these details underscored the Skirball’s deep interest in the American story, which brings me to my favorite part of the exhibition: the Liberty Gallery.
Dr. Kirschner slowed the pace of the tour once we reached this gallery, and I can see why. Everything about this room is wonderful in the way it represents the American dream and what it means to be an American. The entire back wall is a giant photograph of immigrants arriving by ship in America at Ellis Island. Placed in front of it are a number of vintage suitcases, both big and small, that bring to life the long travels that immigrants endured during this time. These visuals truly struck me, but it was the vastness of the object in the center of the room that caught me off guard upon my entrance.
When I walked in, I recognized it as the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty in New York. From my talk with Adele, I learned that the luminous blue tile upon which this replica is installed was chosen to represent the ocean that actually surrounds Lady Liberty. Additionally, I learned that this particular object had been scaled to such a large size because it was deemed most powerful, monumental, and symbolic of the phenomenon of American immigration. And rightfully so: it is astounding to experience it at first sight.
Although the object is grand, it is only a piece of the puzzle that brings this gallery together for me. What truly resonates with me is the entire presentation of immigration and the journey to America. Coming from a family of many immigrants, I feel a personal connection to this rich subject and will be writing and researching on the immigrant experience for my Honor’s Thesis this coming year.
What interests me most about the immigrant experience is that it is a story that applies to almost everybody who lives in the United States. In fact, most people who live here have either immigrated themselves or have parents or grandparents who have immigrated, all in hopes of making a better life in America. I’m sure that like me, many who enter the Liberty Gallery can relate to the story of immigration represented in the gallery, including the sacrifices and struggles that come with traveling to this land of opportunity and liberty.
After the tour, I truly felt as if I understood the Skirball’s mission, values, and history. I had a renewed feeling of welcome to the Skirball family, especially after learning how diverse and universal this institution truly is. I feel as though the Skirball perfectly represents American ideals and values because it openly welcomes everyone, just as our country has done for years and years for people around the world. My love for Skirball has only grown through these rapid weeks, and I know that I will never forget this special place or experience.
So if you haven’t had the opportunity to check out Visions and Values, definitely take the tour and check out the many other great stories and objects you can find in this unique exhibition!