In recent years, the flames of antisemitism in America have been reignited. From Charlottesville to Pittsburgh, Jews in America face hate in new and unprecedented ways. How are we to fight against this? How can we teach truth in the face of such ignorance? In an age where the internet is used as a tool of hate, and facts are seen as fiction, where can we reach the public and educate in order to eliminate this rhetoric? Our greatest tool may in fact be the museum.
Across the world, these temples of culture have been a place for the public to go and learn about people, places, and things beyond their own communities. It is a classroom on a grand and magnificent scale. The power of stories told and lessons learned through artifacts and interactives give kids and adults alike the opportunity to expand their worldview and become allies to all in this global society. As Jews, we can use the museum space to tell our own stories. In fact, we have been doing so for over a century right here in the District.
In 1887, Cyrus Adler became the first person in the United States to earn a PhD in Semitics. A few months later, he took his degree to Washington, joining the staff of the United States National Museum, known today as the Smithsonian Institution. Adler saw the museum as one of the most powerful tools in combatting antisemitism prevalent in 19th century America. By collecting and exhibiting Judaica and developing Jewish studies as a scientific discipline, he believed he could squash negative stereotypes and gain acceptance for Jews as equal and respected participants in American society. By showing the richness of Jewish culture, visitors could see with their own eyes a more authentic view of the Jewish people.
A recent survey conducted by the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study (NAAU) asked people what they saw as highly credible sources of information. At one end of the scale are federal agencies, which average 51% of respondents see as trustworthy. In the middle, an average of 67% of respondents see newspapers as credible. But higher than all other type of organizations are history museums, which an average of nearly 80% of respondents see as a credible source of information.
In this day of internet misinformation campaigns and rising antisemitism we can look to Cyrus Adler and embrace the museum space as one of our strongest tools of mass education against hate. We at the Capital Jewish Museum understand the tremendous responsibility that comes with being such a trusted source of information, and will use our museum to advocate for our community, and encourage our visitors to participate as active citizens in our society.