An introduction to The New-York Historial Society with curator, Marilyn Kushner
NOVEMBER 11, 2011, MARKED AN IMPORTANT DATE FOR THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY WHEN IT REOPENED ITS LANDMARK BUILDING AFTER A STUNNING THREE YEAR RENOVATION THAT INCLUDES AN ELEGANT RECONFIGURATION OF THE ENTRANCE, A CLEAR GLASS VIEW INTO THE INTERIOR OF THE MUSEUM AND EXTRAORDINARY INTERACTIVE MULTI-MEDIA INSTALLATIONS THAT ENGAGE ADULTS AND CHILDREN ALIKE.
THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, AN OUTSTANDING MUSEUM AND LIBRARY AND ONE OF THE EARLIEST CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS IN NEW YORK, IS DEDICATED TO FOSTERING RESEARCH AND PRESENTING EXHIBITIONS THAT REFLECT THE DYNAMISM OF HISTORY AND ART AND ITS INFLUENCE IN TODAY’S WORLD.
AT THE REOPENING OF MUSEUM, LOUISE MIRRER, ITS DEDICATED PRESIDENT AND CEO, REMARKED:
“The world has long known that the New-York Historical Society holds unmatched collections in its museum and library. More recently, people have also begun to know us for our vibrant special exhibitions, which bring complex historical themes to life. But we have never before opened ourselves up to the public with such light and transparency, or provided the kind of immediate access to our objects and ideas…It’s as if, at entry level, we are going from being a beautiful treasure house to a great showplace of the American experience.”
IT IS MY GREAT PRIVILEGE TO INTRODUCE MARILYN SATIN KUSHNER, CURATOR AND HEAD OF PRINTS, PHOTOGRAPHS AND ARCHITECTURAL COLLECTIONS TO THE LRFA BLOG. MARILYN WILL SHARE HER EXTENSIVE KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE MUSEUM WORLD AND INSIGHT INTO THE CURATORIAL PROCESS WITH US.
LAST SUMMER, MARILYN CURATED A UNIQUE EXHIBITION TO CELEBRATE THE 100th ANNIVERSARY OF THE JDC (THE AMERICAN JEWISH JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE) . “I LIVE. SEND HELP” EPITOMIZES THE UNIQUE WAY IN WHICH THE MUSEUM BRINGS HISTORY TO LIFE WITH PHOTOGRAPHS, OBJECTS, ART, FILMS AND LETTERS. http://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/JDC
MARILYN, WELCOME TO THE LRFA BLOG AND THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION. LET’S START BY EXPLORING THIS EXHIBIT AND THE WAY IN WHICH IT CAME TOGETHER FOR THE MUSEUM.
This exhibition was different from most that I have done. I Live. Send Help. had very little “art” and far more documents than are in most of the shows that I organize. This was an exhibition about the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC or the Joint)—2014 was their 100th year anniversary. (I seem to be into centennial exhibitions these days.)
JDC was formed in 1914 when Henry Morganthau, Sr., who was the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), wrote to Jacob Schiff here in New York, saying that the Jews in Eastern Europe were being displaced, they were in terrible trouble, they had become refugees, villages were being burned, and they need help – $50,000 immediately (today worth over $2,000,000). The day that Schiff received that telegram, he wrote back to Morganthau saying, “Proceed. We will raise the $50,000 for you.” Schiff turned to Louis Marshall and also to Felix Warburg and together they raised the $50k. This exhibition is about what JDC or “Joint” has done over the past 100 years. After World War I not only were there Jewish refugees in need of aid but there were many Jewish war orphans that JDC relocated to the US. World War II followed on the heels of these rescue efforts and the need for humanitarian help for Jews continued. Since WWII the Joint has continued to be there for Jews in need whether it was in the Soviet Union, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East Africa, South America—actually anywhere in the globe where there were Jews in distress.
Now JDC has become a humanitarian organization that reaches out to non-Jews as well, so the Joint was in Haiti when the earthquake struck or in the Philippines when the typhoon struck. Quite frankly, it also reach out to any areas where there had been crises. In Sarajevo, JDC evacuated both Jews and non-Jews alike. We told that story in this exhibition because, as I often said, “We decided to mount the exhibition I Live. Send Help. because the New York Historical Society does history and we do New York”.
This was an exhibition about one humanitarian organization headquartered here in New York that has a CAN DO attitude. New York is known for this and it’s this energy and this vitality that characterizes our city– it was a perfect fit.
WHAT DOCUMENTS WERE ACCESSIBLE TO YOU?
The title of the show is “I Live, Need Help” and I would say that 95% of the approximately 100 objects in the exhibition come from JDC archives. The archives contain a telegram on pink paper sent from a woman in Warsaw – dated July of 1945, literally right when the war ended. She wrote four words: “I live. Require help.” People wondered how she did that – JDC was on the ground in Europe right after the war ended – there to help people. This woman found them amidst the ruins of Warsaw. I get chills when I think of that document.
Two original telegrams between Henry Morganthau, Sr. and Jacob Shiff that I mentioned previously are in the exhibition. There is a pair of eyeglasses in the exhibition. A JDC staff member went into the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and visited a Jewish family that needed aid. During that meeting the visitor saw that his Russian host had eyeglasses which were held together with string and rubber bands and paper clips. He asked of the Russian, “Why don’t you get a new pair of glasses?” and the answer given was that these eyeglasses were received upon demobilized from the Red Army after World War II. The Russian could not spare 6 cents it would cost to buy a new pair. The JDC visitor made a deal – he took the old glasses and sent the old man a new pair. Those glasses are in the exhibition.
There is a letter in the exhibition from Morris Tropper, the JDC representative in Lisbon, Portugal during World War II, to Eleanor Roosevelt. Tropper told her how JDC was helping to get the children out of Europe. The parents of these children knew they weren’t going to survive so they placed their children in orphanages in hopes that someone would be able to find safe haven for them. Eventually the children were put on a train bound for Lisbon and then on a ship to the United States. A number of their parents were being held in Drancy, a holding camp on the outskirts of Paris —their next stop would be extermination camps in the East. This children’s train actually passed through Drancy and their parents were allowed to come to the train and say good-bye. Tropper told Roosevelt her how the children no longer knew how to laugh, play, or even smile because they had experienced such terror. When this train stopped in Drancy some of the children were able to visit with their parents for 15 minutes and they all held each other and cried. Tropper wrote some of these children couldn’t even speak the language of their parents because they had been apart from them for so long and so they just held each other. The scene was unbelievably heartbreaking.
IN OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG, WE WILL LEARN ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE MUSEUM AND THE REMARKABLE TREASURE TROVE OF PAINTING, OBJECTS AND HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS THAT IT HOLDS. MARILYN IS TRULY AN EXPERT NOT ONLY IN ART HISTORY BUT IN THE CURATORIAL WORLD. WE WELCOME ALL COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS.