Docents Explore Our New Permanent Exhibition
By Meredith Carroll
When I arrived at the Museum at Eldridge Street nearly two weeks ago, I was greeted by the hum of drills and a whiff of paint. Installers were hard at work on our new permanent exhibit, slated to open this Thursday. Over time, though, the activity has died down.Today it is opening.
Alongside about twenty seasoned docents and two fellow interns, I saw the exhibit for the first time as part of Monday’s docent training, led by deputy director Amy Stein-Milford and archivist Nancy Johnson.
First to draw my eye was the map of eastern Europe that covers one wall of the entryway. It distorted space, emphasizing the Pale of Settlement, the region from which early congregants hailed. I could picture visitors being surprised, even disoriented, by the unusual configuration. But disorientation, I realized, was part of the point. The map, after all, sketched not a present-day space but a foreign time — a familiar setting, but a different world.
Each of the exhibit’s three sections filled in a particular aspect of the immigrants’ world. One described the synagogue itself, another depicted the American Jewish experience, and a third illustrated life on the Lower East Side. Alongside the usual artifact cases and informational placards, each section also included an interactive table. I’m excited to explore the tables further; each includes games, videos, information, and stories about individuals throughout the building’s history. The docents were also impressed, and marveled at the tables’ improved design. What I liked most, though, was the way the tables and the sections incorporated multiple stories into a single space. The displays, like the building itself, weave together a number of narrative threads.
Of course, a certain degree of complexity is built into a multi-narrative format, and the docents were thoughtful about incorporating the new exhibit into their tours. After all, the exhibit is meant to give visitors a comprehensive overview of the space and its history. Integrating it into the tour will be a challenge, and guides will selectively incorporate information to ensure that it remains engaging and meaningful. The beautiful 1887 synagogue itself remains the main attraction. The exhibit helps complement and contextualize it.
The upshot, I suspect, is that integrating the exhibit with tours will be an ongoing process. Each visitor arrives with a unique perspective. Tours vary by group, by docent, and even by day. The exhibit will enhance each of them. But it will enhance each tour in a different way — as befits a space whose own history continues to evolve.
Meredith Carroll, a junior at Grinnell College, is a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street.