The Arty Semite

Museum of Jewish Heritage Back to Normal After Hurricane Irene

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Water from New York Harbor washes over a sidewalk in Battery Park on August 27.

“Everything is back to normal today” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City at the lower tip of Manhattan, according to Associate Director Abby Spilka.

Spilka was afraid this was not going to be the case when she left the Museum late Friday, after taking precautions against the possible effects of Hurricane Irene. “Currently, we are all feeling the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and there are things that will put us back to that morning. When I was told to evacuate and pack up, not knowing what I would return to, it was harder than I was expected it would be. We were all so relieved that the Museum fared well and we couldn’t wait to get back to work this morning,” Spilka said.

Despite the evacuation orders issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, four members of the Museum’s security and operations staff hunkered down on site for the duration of the hurricane. Spilka and other senior staff were in touch with them throughout, checking in for regular updates.

To everyone’s relief, the storm did not reach any higher than four inches below the top of the sea wall just outside the Museum. Consequently, the building suffered no flooding, and the only damage was minor leaking on the fourth floor and on the third floor rotunda, where the installation of the soon-to-open “Yahrzeit: September 11 Remembered” is taking place.

“We’ve been reflecting a lot on the fact that both an earthquake and a hurricane have taken place during the installation of this particular exhibition,” Spilka noted.

In preparation for the arrival of Irene, nine members of the staff, together with two former Museum employees who wanted to lend a hand, removed all the artifacts from the first floor galleries. The Museum closed at noon on Friday, and by 4:30, all those artifacts — including more than one Holocaust Torah scroll — had been moved to a third floor prep room. Most of the workers who managed this feat weren’t even members of the Collections and Exhibitions department, as many of those staff were on vacation and unable to return due to grounded flights.

Other precautions were taken, as well. The entrances to and base of the building were sandbagged, items in the gift shop and resource center were moved off the floor, and the contents of the library were covered in plastic. The Fazioli piano in the Museum’s theater, which sits below ground, was wrapped up. It weathered the storm without damage. “Unwrapping it this morning was like unwrapping a beautiful and expensive present,” remarked Spilka.

There were visitors lined up waiting to get in at 10:30 am this morning, so the Museum is open for business today. The reinstallation of the first floor will take longer than its de-installation. That part of the museum will remain closed until further notice, but it shouldn’t be too long before those galleries are again accessible to visitors. Spilka said that staff members had voluntarily cut short their late summer vacations to come in and help put things back in order.


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