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Museum Musings

6.23.17: Unpacking Memories

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By David Acosta

SuitcasesDuring a recent visit to the Museum to see its special exhibition 1917: How One Year Changed the World, I also decided to go through the core exhibition once again. It’s a place I enjoy visiting from time to time as I always discover something new.

This time I was on the third floor and as I turned the corner, I was struck by a pile of suitcases, which created in me a great sense of sadness. The suitcases are part of the exhibition about the great Jewish migration to the United States from other places throughout the world. My sadness at seeing them piled up one on top of the other stemmed from several reasons.

As an immigrant, the suitcases resonated with me as would other suitcases in the exhibition because they are in a sense tied to specific journeys one undertakes in a lifetime: vacations, family visits, and for some a permanent move to a new place. For my family coming to America in 1968 it was a permanent move, one that involved leaving behind all that was familiar to us: language, food, and customs, but most importantly family, which is so central to the identity of Colombians and in many ways defines how we view ourselves and how we move through the world. I remember how difficult those first years were and how we yearned to go home, to return to the familiar and to a large and very close knit extended family.

The other story is one that I revisit often and was told to me by a South African friend. Once as a child she was playing in a room and went to hide underneath the bed in her grandparents’ room (a place she was not allowed to play in) and how she found a suitcase which she dragged from under the bed and when she opened it she found that it was packed with what seemed to her all of the things one would need for a fast journey.

Alarmed at the thought that her grandparents who had lived with her and her parents all of her life were leaving, she ran to her mother crying. To soothe her, her mother reassured her that her grandparents weren’t leaving and she told her that everyone in the house had such a suitcase including her, and how the suitcases were ready just in case they had to take an unexpected trip. She then took her to the closet where she showed the little girl a suitcase packed just for her, which also included some books and toys. It was only years later as a young teenager that she mentioned it to a friend who also said her family had done the same.

Apparently this, she learned, was a common experience among Jews who had escaped the Holocaust and/or whose experience was one of continued movement for a place of safety and or for a place that one could call home, and so the pile of suitcases brought that sad story back to me and reminded me of my own sadness at leaving home and all that was familiar, although unlike me, (in the case of many Jews leaving Europe during the war) it meant the possibility of never seeing their families again, and many never would.


David Acosta is the Artistic Director at Casa de Duende, which is dedicated to presenting socially relevant art that addresses critical social issues and challenges both artists and communities to address through art and art-making, the causes and consequences of cultural, economic, and political realities in the context of advancing progres
sive social change.

6.2.17: Remembering a Great Philadelphia Artist

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I first heard the name “Marc Blitzstein” when I was a college student in the mid-1980s. I was spending a semester abroad in London, when a touring production of his musical The Cradle Will Rock came to town starring Patti LuPone and directed by John Houseman, who at the time I knew of only as the star of The Paper Chase.

 

As an emerging progressive, I was drawn to the show’s “power-to-the-people” themes and began to read up on Blitzstein and his work. That’s when I learned about the original production of Cradle and its notorious first performance in 1937. Produced by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (imagine the U.S. Government hiring theatre artists—now that’s progressive!), this production was directed by a 22-year-old Orson Welles and produced by—you guessed it—John Houseman. Reportedly because of its pro-union stance, the production was shut down on the eve of its first performance. The cast and production team were locked out of the theatre, and so they marched up Broadway in protest with several hundred audience members, took over an empty theatre and performed the show with only Blitzstein himself playing the score on piano.

 

June 16th marks the 80th anniversary of this event, one of the most remarkable in the history of American popular culture. But, with the exception of the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, in which Hank Azaria portrayed Blitzstein, this innovative and influential composer, a native Philadelphian, has faded into obscurity.

 

This month, though, Blitzstein will finally get the recognition he so richly deserves. On Monday, June 12, at 11:00 a.m., the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will unveil a historic marker recognizing Blitzstein near the site of his birthplace, 419 Pine Street. All are welcome to attend the dedication, which will include performances of Blitzstein’s work and speakers addressing his roots in Philadelphia, his artistic legacy and his work as an activist. NMAJH Director and CEO Ivy Barsky will emcee.

 

Then, come to NMAJH at 7:00 p.m. that evening for a reading from InterAct Theatre Company of the play It’s All True, which recounts the dramatic creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Purchase reading tickets here.

 

Blitzstein died in 1964 and was buried in Chelten Hills Cemetery in West Oak Lane. He has never been fully embraced or celebrated as one of Philadelphia’s great artists. That will change on June 12. Please join us.

 

-Michael Norris

 

5.24.17: Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition

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Shkoyach is a temporary projection to be displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition. In this project, a series of pairs of watercolor portraits is being projected at monumental scale within the Museum’s lobby. On a walk-through of NMAJH’s educational displays and collections in the main galleries, I collected some of the images on view of Jewish women engaged in social justice work across more than 100 years of American history. I then researched images of Black, Latina, and Asian women engaged in the same types of public actions, strikes, protests, and organizing meetings. The resulting watercolor portraits are intended to offer a personal and humanizing response to the extraordinary and ordinary heroism of these women. The title, Shkoyach, is a Yiddish expression often used to acknowledge and appreciate an act of bravery, wisdom, or chutzpah. It is a contraction of the more formal Hebrew “Yasher Koach”, and the literal translation is “May your strength be directed forward.” The expression, and this project, acknowledge both the importance of what has already been done, and the importance of using our strength for future action. Nine pairs of women are portrayed; I hope you will stop by the Museum to learn more about them.

Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition will celebrate 13 contemporary Philly-based artists whose work challenges the social and political status quo at 13 prominent locations around Old City, Society Hill, and along the Delaware River Waterfront from May 24 through July 4, 2017. Click here for more information.