I’ve just finished my second week, and first full day, of my internship at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia, and I haven’t really done anything blog-worthy yet. And I’m perfectly okay with this! Instead of jumping into my eventual projects, I’ve had a useful and meditative introduction to what will be my second home over the summer, as well as a chance to compare it to what I remember of being an intern at NMAJH…
Internships at NMAJH, at least in my department, can be pretty precarious. Behind the scenes, we have plenty of interesting, meaty projects people can work on. (That’s how I became involved in Becoming American!) But it’s a very fast-paced department, with multiple large projects happening at once that often overwhelm. We often rely on “learning by doing,” digesting new information through the process of preparing new curricula and docent guides, or through attending the trainings and lectures we arrange for docents.
So I was pleasantly surprised when, at my first full day of my AAMP internship, we all sat down for about 3 hours to discuss a number of scholarly articles relating to their upcoming exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We had been given the articles as homework — overviews of the Black Arts Movement as well as features on specific artists like Richard Mayhew. This was an incredible help for me: I’m relatively new to both African-American history and art history, so the readings made it easy for me to feel out of my depths. Taking the time to discuss the information helped me to gain ease in discussing these issues, an ease which will become important for leading tours where, as a white person, I’ll be expected to talk about the Black Arts Movement and how artists worked through issues related to oppression, resistance, and identity.
This has gotten me thinking about how non-Jewish interns at NMAJH, particularly those in education who will give a tour at some point, have acclimated to our subject matter. To be fair, it’s not a direct comparison; the exhibition’s narrative focuses on Jews as an ethnic group, more than a religion or culture. For example, knowing about kashrut (dietary restrictions) is only important for interpreting the story of the Trefa Banquet. Issues of Jewish identity, fears of intermarriage, disagreements between denominations, and other trickier topics. Meanwhile, if I give a tour of PhilAesthetic, I may have to discuss Amiri Baraka’s controversial views on what it means to be “Black enough,” using violence to end racism, and sexism…
(A side note disclaimer that, of course, NMAJH has non-Jewish staff and docents. But they all pretty much started years before me, so by the time I started, they had all gotten used to the “office culture”…)
Perhaps I’m just getting too hung up on these issues of identity and speaking about groups you are or aren’t a part of. I’ve long been fascinated by ideas of “belonging” and “exclusion,” and so it’s been so interesting to see how those ideas function in ethnographic museums. Until now, I’ve been focused on observing visitors in this situation, but how does it affect staff as well? A non-Jewish friend commented to me the other day that she’s always thought that she wasn’t allowed to go to Jewish museums, but I’ve even had other friends ask if they have to be Jewish to respond to job ads. (No, of course not, that’s illegal!) What level of knowledge does a non-Jewish or non-Black person need to give tours at NMAJH or AAMP, and how much ownership of that knowledge can/should they take?
These are humongous questions that I’ve been interested in exploring (although I’ve been struggling to fit them into the mold of a thesis project). But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I can do for our interns, especially our non-Jewish ones, to help them be comfortable with our environment and content. I’ve always been a huge proponent of checking in, encouraging questions, defining Hebrew terms, etc, but is that enough? Or am I just making too big a deal out of what’s actually a non-issue?