I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.
A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”
The Man Behind the Myth
My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.
Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading
While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.
The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.
In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.
The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading
A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.
These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.
Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.
1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading
Just a couple of days before Election Day, the Skirball will be presenting Ameryka. A meditation on democracy, this work-in-progress seemed to me a thought-provoking program to present in association with Creating the United States. Ameryka is written and directed by multidisciplinary artist and 2011 USA Hoi Fellow Nancy Keystone, working in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group.
I recently had a chance to ask Nancy a few questions about the work… and I found out that an election poster in Poland was what first inspired it.
What sparked the idea for Ameryka?
I was in Poland in 2009, which was the twentieth anniversary of the “Solidarity” election. Solidarity was the free trade union in Poland, which sparked the modern democracy movement in Eastern Europe, the first semi-free elections in Poland, and the eventual fall of Communism.
It was during that trip in 2009 that I saw the famous Solidarity election poster. It features a picture of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane, from the 1950s Western High Noon. He’s wearing a Solidarity badge above his sheriff star, and instead of a gun he’s holding an election ballot. At the bottom of the poster, it says, “It’s High Noon, 4 June, 1989.” I was really taken by this collision of cultures, by the use of this very American image to rally people to vote, by what this meant about the relationship between the United States and Poland. What I found was a vast universe of associations between our two countries going back to the American Revolution, and that’s what sparked the idea for Ameryka.
Your work addresses 200+ years of American history. How did you even begin to tackle this massive span of time and how have you chosen which eras to explore? Continue reading
Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)
Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.
To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated; before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many Angelenos, I came here as an adult. At this point in my life, I have lived in L.A. much longer than my first eighteen years in Chattanooga. I have come to love the story of Los Angeles—my husband is a big hometown booster—and I have visited and learned to appreciate all that Los Angeles has to offer, from San Pedro to San Fernando to San Gabriel to Santa Monica.
A fascinating piece of the L.A. story is the history of the Jews who have settled and thrived here. From its earliest days, Jews have helped to build L.A. as we know it—whether as bankers, merchants, performers, teachers, builders, or Hollywood producers—and they continue to contribute to the fabric of the city through the arts, civic life, industry, and education. This ongoing story was brought vividly to life on a warm Sunday in June when fifty curious souls boarded a touring coach at the steps of the Skirball to spend a day exploring Jewish Los Angeles.
The catalyst for this day trip was Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, on view at the Skirball for just one more month. The exhibition presents personal stories of growing up in Los Angeles and California through the use of cleverly edited home movies and wonderful added audio commentary. Visitors quickly learn of the challenges of moving to California in the 1930s and 1940s, adapting to a new environment, and encountering the various cultural groups that were also settling here.
The bus tour was ably conducted by Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College and Senior Research Fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Bruce is a demographer: he studies patterns of settlement, affiliation, intermarriage, and immigration. He gathers the raw data and then attempts to deduce from it the stories of our lives. The ways he finds information are amazing. For example, by browsing the 1930 Los Angeles telephone directory, he was able to learn where Jews lived by pinpointing the houses of worship.
To prepare for the daylong bus tour, Bruce and I took the telephone directory records and headed out to find the long lost synagogues. We ended up as far south as 42nd St. and Grand Ave., where today we find the Greater Faith Temple, which was once called Congregation B’nai Amuna. Many of these old synagogues are now churches, but they all retain the original cornerstones with Hebrew dedications, as well as distinctively Jewish ornamental decorations on their facades. We were excited to bring our bus tour to these landmarks of Jewish homegrown history.
Our first stop was Greater New Vision Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, where Pastor Lucious Pope welcomed us. This building was the former home of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which now sits proudly in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. The church has retained the original designs in the sanctuary as well as the name in Hebrew on the front. As we peeked inside on a Sunday morning before regular services, the Greater New Vision congregants were warm and welcoming. Our visit to their church also gave us insight into the changing demographics of our city: the African American church now shares its space with a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation. Continue reading
With the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History now on view, there’s something I’ve been wondering about: When you hear the term “home movie,” what comes to mind? I dare say that the image will vary considerably based on when you grew up.
If you were a Depression-era kid, born in the 1930s and 1940s, most home movies were an elaborate affair shot in 16mm film and screened using a large projector much like the ones used in school classrooms back in the day. It was an expensive undertaking that only a few could afford and was reserved for special occasions.
Baby Boomers remember small 8mm handheld cameras, which could shoot about eight minutes of footage and whose images had no accompanying sound. In order to shoot indoors, the camera operator had to mount a gigantic light bulb, which, in addition to providing the necessary lighting, could also blind and burn its subjects! Dangers aside, we would gladly dance in front of the camera—run around like wild animals, leap off furniture, dive into swimming pools. Continue reading