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History Museum Digs In for the Future

October 4, 2007 By:
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Museum trustee Joseph S. Zuritsky, with (left) his wife, Renee, and his sister, Etta Winigrad
At present, the site doesn't look like much.

Sheets of metal jut out of the half-gutted building, and wires hang down from its brown stone exterior. Overhead, a giant crane protrudes into the sky.

But come July 4, 2010, this parcel of land will house a state-of-the-art, $150 million museum devoted to the Jewish American experience.

Sitting across from the Liberty Bell, and positioned between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center, the new National Museum of American Jewish History -- which will be located at the corner of Fifth and Market streets -- will boast a five-storied glass exterior, 20,000 artifacts and more than 25,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Interactive-story booths and a re-created streetscape will help tell the 353-year-old history of the Jews of the United States; the building also will feature classrooms, technology labs, a 200-seat theater and 5,000 square feet of changing exhibits.

Several hundred people gathered at the construction site on Sept. 30 to herald the start of this dramatic physical transformation.

The hourlong groundbreaking ceremony, held under a clear blue sky, was attended by political heavyweights such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, and mayoral candidates Michael Nutter and Al Taubenberger. Congratulatory words were offered by historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University and from museum director Gwen Goodman.

In between a sounding of the shofar and a recitation of the Shehecheyanu prayer, event speakers cited an arsenal of lofty goals for the museum.

Specter, for example, spoke about the "tremendous unifying factor" the museum could have on the Jewish community. Citing low rates of synagogue affiliation, the senator said he hoped that the institution would play an important role in instilling "identity and pride" in Jews.

Rendell stressed a different goal -- that the museum might boost the region's economy.

"People will come to Philadelphia for the specific purpose of seeing this museum," he told the crowd. "It will be a tremendous tourist attraction."

In an earlier interview, Goodman said that while the current building has had about 40,000 visitors a year, the new institution will likely receive about 250,000, according to her calculations. She noted that the museum will draw visitors from all over the country, as well as from many schools.

"We expect this to be a destination museum," she said.

Goodman added that the new space will present a markedly different experience from what's available in the current facility, which has only 3,000 square feet of exhibition space and one display gallery. Because of these limitations, she said, the museum has not been able to host rotating exhibits, nor does it have room to function as a community hub.

"But we're going to make this into one of the great museums in America," she promised.

Initially, the museum was supposed to open in 2008 at its current location on Fifth Street, which is shared with Congregation Mikveh Israel. But when the former KYW building down the street went on sale in 2005, the museum jumped at the chance to move to the heavily trafficked, high-profile corner.

The decision cost the museum financially -- extra money was needed to purchase the site -- and in terms of time, as the architectural plans had to be reconfigured.

To date, the museum has raised more than $100 million of the total $150 million needed to complete the project.

Major gifts have come from philanthropist Sidney Kimmel and Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, as well as from the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the New York-based firm Polshek Partnership Architects has created a design to fit the corner site: a glass, minimalist facade -- topped by an eight-foot electric flame -- will stretch along Fifth Street, and a terra cotta exterior will line Market Street, where the entrance will be located. The entryway will feature an 85-foot-high atrium.

Museum historian and deputy director Josh Perelman said that the American Jewish story itself will begin with the landing of the first Jews in New Amsterdam, and continue on into the present day, covering trends like suburbanization and Jewish summer camps, as well as the various waves of Jewish immigration over time.

And he made a point of saying that the museum would not shy away from discussing thornier subjects, like the role Jews played in the slave trade or the modern-day issue of intermarriage.

"This is not a celebration of great Jews in America," he said. "Our goal is to be true to our story -- warts and all."

'Relevant to the Larger World'
Perelman also expressed a desire to create accessible content. While he said that he wanted to offer Jewish visitors a wealth of information -- including rare books, ritual items and a catalogue of sermons -- "we need to be relevant to the larger world in which we all live."

The historian added that the museum would try to accomplish that goal by weaving universal themes -- like freedom, immigration and prejudice -- into its exhibits, and by making the material interactive and engaging.

During his groundbreaking remarks, Street applauded this effort.

If "every child in the Philadelphia school district was required to go to this museum and to the African-American museum," it would be a "beacon of understanding for our community," noted the mayor.

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