Working at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Hey! I’m Rilka Spieler. I’m a rising senior and a history major at Haverford. This summer I’m interning at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH–I know, a great acronym). Before I talk about some of the exciting things I’m doing this summer, I’ll give y’all a little bit of background about the museum itself.

The museum’s stated purpose is “to connect Jews more closely to their heritage and to inspire in people of all backgrounds a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American Jewish experience and the freedoms to which all Americans aspire.” Informally, it’s to present Jewish history through an American lens. Organized chronologically, the museum seeks to take its visitors through time, starting in 1654 when the first Jewish families permanently settled in North America, traveling from Recife, Brazil. The core exhibition, spanning three floors, follows American Jewish communities both geographically and chronologically as each attempts to strike a balance between its constantly in flux Jewish and American identities.

When the museum first opened to the public in 1976, it had a total of 40 artifacts in its collection. Since then, the museum has acquired over 25,000 objects related to Jewish life in America, making its collection of Jewish Americana the largest in the world. And as an intern in the Registration department, I work mostly with the collection. The specific part of the collection that I am working with this summer was donated last year by a southern Jewish woman of German ancestry named Margaret Anne. The artifacts (two of which are in the picture below) and recorded histories, which date from the mid-19th century to present day, tell about her family’s experiences and the little-known stories of small-town southern Jewish life.

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My primary job this summer involves accessioning all of the objects in the Margaret Anne collection. It’s a tedious-sounding process that allows me to become familiar with each object individually and with the collection as a whole. As I go through and accession each new object, I gain an intimate knowledge of its history – where it was created, who used it, why, and how.

While I probably won’t get to see the end of Margaret Anne’s collection, being able to work so closely with these artifacts has been a great experience so far. The more I learn about each object, the more I understand about the collection as a whole.  And I look forward to spending the rest of the summer with her collection!

Rilka

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