The Arty Semite

Should National History Museum Quit Being Jewish?

By Michael Kaminer

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With attendance figures stagnant, Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History should change its name, retool its mission, and target broader audiences.

That’s the message in a prickly editorial from Liberty City Press, an independent news service whose publisher boasts personal ties to the museum’s founders.

Headlined “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall,” the piece was sparked by a report from local arts organization AxisPhilly that early audience projections for several Independence Mall museums, including NMAJH, had been inflated, sometimes by as much as 100%.

Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network, whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.

“My greatest concern is that someone’s going to have to subsidize this museum,” Ken Smukler, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Liberty City Press, told the Forward. “And it’s not going to be the Pennsylvania government, which subsidizes a bunch of cultural institutions that are failing. The museum’s going to look to the Jewish Federation for money. They’re the subsidizer of choice. And that would be a drain on Federation for years to come.”

Smukler’s late father, Joe Smukler, was a legendary figure in Philadelphia Jewish philanthropy who ran the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia for years — and served as vice-president of the NMAJH after its opening. “The people who put this museum together were friends of my parents,” Smukler said.

“I don’t think there wasn’t an intentional inflation of numbers, but an overestimation of how many people would actually walk into a Jewish museum when they’re essentially in the area to do American history tourism,” Smukler said. “They essentially took the total foot traffic from Independence Mall and derived a percentage that would walk into a Jewish museum and pay the freight.”

Smukler’s editorial also contended that “the family from China visiting the Liberty Bell might decide to shell out $100 for a museum that speaks to their culture when there is much less of a shot for their dollars to walk into a museum that only celebrates Jewish history in America.”

But Ivy Barsky, the National Museum of American Jewish History’s CEO, dismissed Smukler’s assertions — and the news outlet that carried them.

“Until you called, I hadn’t seen the editorial, and I didn’t know Liberty City Press existed,” Barsky told the Forward. “I’m puzzled by his conclusions.”

The issue around attendance numbers “is old news, and I don’t know why he was moved to retread well-trod ground from estimates constructed a long time ago,” she said. “We’re beyond those numbers. In fact, our attendance is up 23%. We’re not resting on our laurels. We’d love to get every number and quality of experience rating up. But we’re tracking in right direction.”

Besides, Barsky said, attendance is “just one metric of many. On travel web sites, people say they expected to spend a short time with us and end up spending half a day. Those are the kinds of measurements that are meaningful to us, and by which we’re measuring success.”

Big-ticket exhibitions like the current “Chasing Dreams: Baseball & Becoming American” also speak to broad bases, she said. “In that exhibition, we have Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. Those stories of immigration, and of ethnic minorities becoming part of the fabric of America, play a big part in stories we tell through exhibitions and programs,” Barsky said. “I don’t think we have to change any of that. It’s part of our core mission.”

Smukler, for his part, said he never expected museum honchos would take his editorial to heart.

“My guess is that the leadership of the Jewish museum would not even entertain that conversation,” he said. “And I don’t blame them.”


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