Project Mah Jongg

Review

of an Exhibition

by Eva Sandler

Published on March 26, 2011, Modified on August 08, 2011

  • Description:

    Project Mah Jongg was held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage from May 4, 2010 to February 27, 2011. Mah Jongg is a Chinese game that came through the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1920s and was adopted by predominantly Jewish-American female immigrants. While one may easily assume that the exhibition exclusively targeted elderly, Jewish Mah Jongg fans, the exhibition’s assembled elements provided for an environment that was accessible to a larger demographic. Project Mah Jongg presented the history of the game in the United States, and aimed to invite visitors to experience the communal spirit of game playing. Interactive components intuitively conveyed the significance of game playing throughout time, particularly how games like Mah Jongg have strengthened communities and promoted cross-cultural understanding.

    These ideas were iterated throughout the exhibition space, which was brightened with the variety of colors found in Mah Jongg game pieces (red, green, and blue). These aesthetic decisions enlivened the exhibition’s historical topic and provided for a “fun” atmosphere. The small, circular room offered a sense of intimacy that reflects the bonds formed between individuals as they converse around a game-playing table. In addition, the open spatial orientation served to enhance the visitors’ sense of connectedness to the museum community.

    A table with chairs was positioned at the center of the room with a Mah Jongg game set, which included instructions for those who do not know how to play the game. One of the Museum’s Educators described observing a Chinese visitor explain the game to his friends; this not only demonstrates how forms of entertainment continue to provide a great common ground, but also reinforces the value of offering visitors opportunities for sharing, and constructing cultural knowledge. However, I believe this interactive may have failed in attracting visitors and consequently isolated them from the topic; Mah Jongg is a particularly complex game, and the Museum did not offer ongoing lessons. In addition, visitors must have patience to understand and teach one another the game. Thus, while the layout of the exhibition is inviting, the game-playing table seems to stand isolated.

    Encircling the game-playing table were a number of kiosks, which were arranged in such a way that the visitor could easily navigate the space and see other individuals as they did so. These displays contained collections of artifacts, like snapshots, from the lives of those who have played Mah Jongg from the time of its emergence in the United States. These artifacts were donated by employees of the Museum and various individuals outside the Museum’s community, and by allowing others to share the significance embedded in their personal artifacts, the museum enriched the historical meaning of the exhibition. The objects tell stories that are deeply personal, and while they may appear to be “kitsch,” they communicate the importance of material objects and their ability to evoke “sentiments and emotions.” By interacting with these objects – directly or indirectly – the visitor reflects on the importance of objects in their own lives and the stories that are told through them.

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