Power and Poignancy: A Conversation with Eldridge’s Exhibition Curator
On Thursday, September 14th, the museum opened a brand new exhibition entitled Rediscovery, Restoration and Renewal: The Eldridge Street Synagogue in Photographs. For visitors, myself included, who have only experienced the museum’s sanctuary as a beautifully restored space, it’s hard to imagine all that beauty is the result of a restoration project that wrapped up only ten years ago. To me, that’s exactly what makes this new exhibition so meaningful. The new show details, through photographs, the stunning transformation the sanctuary underwent in the past four decades – from deteriorated, to restored, to reimagined. The photographs show how meticulous and significant the restoration effort was, but the exhibition itself was also a labor of love. I spoke with Museum at Eldridge Street Archivist and the exhibition’s curator, Nancy Johnson, to get the inside scoop on her experience putting together this exciting show.
Q: Take us through the main themes of this exhibition – what are audiences in store for?
A: The idea for the show started with wanting to mark the 10th anniversary of the synagogue’s restoration being completed. To celebrate that milestone, the exhibition presents a record of the building’s journey in photographs: from the rediscovery in the 1970s of an American-Jewish landmark at risk of being lost, through a painstaking restoration process, to an impassioned debate about commissioning a contemporary work of art for the historic space. As a group, the 45 photographs in the show create a visual record of the story we tell on our tours.
Q: What was your process for finding visual materials?
A: The Museum has a great photo archive, but for this show, I really dug deep and found some images I didn’t know we had. For the oldest photographs in the show, I contacted photographers and asked if they had high-resolution digital files for photos that were originally taken on film. Fortunately they did.
For the Restoration section, the artisans who restored the stained glass, lighting and paint finishes documented their work step-by-step, and they had shared those photographs with us, so there were lots of good choices. The “Renewal” section presents a process that happened within the last decade. Again we had photographs from the craftspeople who worked on the project, as well as from the artist and architect.
And in the final section, “Responsibility,” about on-going work, an intrepid photographer climbed the scaffolding last spring when an emergency repair was being done, and got some dizzying shots from a brand new perspective. We’re just really grateful that all these photographers have been so generous in sharing their work with us.
Q: Is there anything about the exhibition, or the history of the building and its restoration, that surprised you while you worked on this project?
A: Although the exhibition tells a story that is very familiar to me, two things really hit me as I put this show together. The first is that the restoration was a very long one. Looking at these photos as narrative, they tell a story that didn’t happen quickly – 40 years separate the oldest and newest images in the show. It was an enormous amount of work that had to be done, step-by-step, one thing building on the next, and it’s a story of work that still continues.
The other thing that hit me is the power of photographs to tell a story. The images really can show what words can’t quite tell.
Q: What’s your favorite item in the exhibition?
A: The thing I like best about this show is the large size of some of the earliest photos. They allow people like me who never saw the synagogue in its pre-restoration state to step into the space virtually and see what that might have been like.
One of the photographers, Kate Milford, said that whenever she photographed the building in its pre-restoration state she always had the feeling that the synagogue was just waiting to be revealed in all its glory. I think that’s what gives the early photographs their poignancy and power – the way they suggest what once was and what might again be.
Q: So how can people see this great exhibition, and for how long?
A: It’s free and open to the public during all business hours of the museum itself, at 12 Eldridge Street just below Canal. The museum is open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. It will be on view until March 2018.
Thanks very much to Nancy for spending a few minutes talking to me about Rediscovery, Restoration and Renewal. Join us sometime soon at 12 Eldridge and take a look for yourself! And while you’re here, don’t forget you can always include us in the fun by posting Instagram photos, tagging us at @museumateldridgestreet and using the #eldridgestreet hashtag! Hope to see you soon.