Samantha Holmes (T'18) shares her academic writing after research facilitated by the Shore Undergraduate Research Scholars Program:
Hardship. Diaspora. Violence. Triumph. Progress. Exhaustion. Uncertainty. These words represent a small sample of the lexicon used to describe marginalized groups. In particular, such phrases connect the narrative of Jewish-Europeans and African-Americans. Both have found themselves in the depths of discrimination. Prejudice places both groups in precarious positions as society struggles to address of its own problematic perspectives. The United States and United Kingdom, two countries who applaud their own stances on human rights, oscillate between recognition and regression in terms societal issues. Narratives for Jewish-Europeans and African- Americans shift as people seek to forget a painful past. The Jewish Museum in London and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture testify against denial. Together, they amplify the voices that the public has often ignored. Housing both the dazzling and dismal parts of history, these museums have a unique role in understanding different experiences. This paper explores how these specific spaces engage with the complex histories of Jewish-Europeans and African-Americans, in the United States and United Kingdom respectively. First, I will briefly describe the relationships between the identity group and the city where the museum resides. Then, I will review society’s response to past atrocities. Next, I will describe the museums. Finally, I will analyze the different approaches/perspectives of the museums to explain how they convey identity.
In order to appreciate this project’s scope and purpose, it is essential to understand the museum’s role in modern society. The different types of museums serve a variety of purposes for academics, experts and casual visitors alike. Dr. Fromm, an acclaimed museum specialist writes, "Many would say that the most important contribution museums make to peace is to promote human understanding through showing the greatness of the cultural achievements of humans everywhere and at all times" (Fromm 2014). This quote exemplifies the ethos of both the Jewish Museum in London and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. These spaces fulfill an obligation of detailing the dark chapters of Jewish-European and African- American experiences. Visitors to the Jewish Museum must reckon with the horrors of anti- Semitism while learning about the accomplishments of Jewish Brits. Similarly, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture acknowledges struggles while showcasing the strides that African-Americans have made throughout the centuries. This balance of beautiful accomplishments and ugly truths is a major feat. It underscores the importance of museums. It also begs the question of 'how'. How can institutions house so many different dimensions of reality? How do the narratives mirror an ever-changing society? How can we begin to understand these complexities? Examining museum theory is a good place to begin.
[ This is an excerpt from Samantha's research. To read more about Holmes's experience, please visit https://jewishstudies.duke.edu/holmes-research .]