The Synagogue Speaks

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jeanine Kern

Published on February 26, 2011, Modified on February 28, 2011

  • Description:

    A recent visit to the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM), located in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, led me to discover “The Synagogue Speaks,” an exhibition installed in the basement of the neighboring, JMM-owned Lloyd Street Synagogue. This exhibition explores the history of three separate congregations that have used this structure, the third-oldest synagogue still standing in the US, since its completion in 1845. JMM’s website describes this exhibition experience as “multi-media,” so I was looking forward to encountering various technologies enhancing the typical exhibition offerings of small museums. Instead, I found a compact, simple exhibition that communicates successfully, but does not include multiple modes of technology. The few technological aspects “The Synagogue Speaks” offers are effective (although not without flaw), but at the close of my visit, I was left wondering if an exhibition touted as “multi-media” should incorporate more methods of expanding upon the traditional museum-going experience.

    After a short walk down the block from JMM, visitors enter the Lloyd Street Synagogue, a neat, peaceful place of worship. The exhibition found on descending the Synagogue’s stairs evokes the same simple, clean lines as the sanctuary above, making this transition seamless. The exhibition fills just a single room, and it is clear that its points of central focus are three large, flat-screen TVs. These TVs claim the center of the spaces allotted for each of three exhibition themes outlining the phases of the Synagogue’s use, and all are visible from the exhibition’s point of entry. Each screen presents an approximately two to five minute video of a conversation between congregation members revolving around cotroversies common in each phase of the Synagogue’s use. The videos’ titles appear above each screen: “Please, please! Surely we can find common ground,” “In America, we’re free to be Lithuanian,” and “Shunned by the congregation.” Visitors control the video by pressing one of two buttons to make it play; one offers just the video with its accompanying audio, while the other offers video with audio and captions. These video clips are unlike other exhibition videos I have encountered; they do not contain images of primary sources or actors portraying people from the past, but instead present strings of still sketches drawn in a sometimes disturbing, unrealistic artistic style. It is unclear if the scripts they present are based on actual past dialogues, or if they are merely hypothetical.

    These videos successfully engage visitors and communicate the exhibition’s main messages through a fresh medium. Visitors appear to flock to the screens prior to considering any exhibition text, perhaps drawn to the sleek, modern technology, or perhaps preferring to utilize the videos’ visual style of learning rather than perusing traditional exhibition elements. The videos enliven the otherwise quiet, motionless space and dead past, providing first-person accounts in a familiar format visitors likely encounter every day. By allowing audiences to listen in on conversations, the videos provide them with opportunities to immerse themselves and experience first-hand the tensions between tradition and change that were staples of the societies that once occupied the Synagogue. In these ways, “The Synagogue Speaks” utilizes the medium of video to its best advantages.

    Still, the exhibition’s videos are not without fault. The volume of the audio is quite loud, with no adjustment control, so much so that it hurt my ears and made me back away from the screens to remedy my discomfort. Although I did not encounter visitors attempting to play more than one video simultaneously, it seems there is no way this could occur without a chaotic cacophony permeating the entire gallery and causing disturbed visitors to flee. Additionally, the artistic style of the videos’ illustrations is not appealing to all audiences, and could even be off-putting, causing visitors to disregard the critical information they present.

    It is my opinion that this type of video presentation is not necessarily the most effective means of communication. While the videos positively grab visitors’ attention and allow for a deeper understanding of its themes, the only things that set them apart from audio playback are strangely ghoulish drawings and the lure of a large, flat-screen TV. While focusing awareness is important, I wonder if “The Synagogue Speaks” could have harnessed the benefits of technology more fully. As nothing real makes an appearance, the videos’ illustrations make it difficult to garner clues that set the scenes in their appropriate time periods and offer a sense of chronology. Would a more interactive approach allowing visitors to view each presentation, but also to browse JMM’s collections pertaining to the specific phases of the Synagogue’s use be useful? This would likely serve to enhance visits by allowing audiences to take a closer, user-generated look at whichever objects appeal to them, and could even be designed to expand on pre-existing knowledge, as well as knowledge gained from reading the exhibit’s text. Providing such contextual information in a way visitors could control themselves would be a valuable tool.

    Unfortunately, this suggestion may not be practical for a museum like JMM. Incorporating new technologies into exhibitions is time-consuming, expensive, and complicates both the exhibition’s operation and maintenance. It seems clear that these are the reasons all of the exhibition’s interactives are manual rather than technical. However, these interactives demand attention in the same way the video screens do, and visitors automatically gravitate toward them as well. One station provides blocks that visitors use to construct a large model of the Synagogue; another encourages them to place translucent, colored pieces of plastic over a backlit table to construct a stained-glass window. Both stations are large enough to prompt interaction and teamwork between visitors. While museums’ technical interactives are sometimes larger than personal kiosks to stimulate the same type of cooperation, this option would probably not be realistic for a small museum likely trying to defray costs and challenges in upkeep. Although technology could have been used to provide interactive activities to complement the exhibition’s video presentations, I think JMM has chosen wisely to go lower-tech in this instance.

    “The Synagogue Speaks” is a satisfying exhibition. Although I expected to encounter more technical elements, I did not miss them. Their inclusion could have been used as a means to build upon the traditional visitor experience, yet the exhibition’s messages come across fully using the media of traditional exhibition text, artifacts, manual interactives, and video presentations. The video technology, while much too loud and a little macabre, is effective in drawing attention and connecting visitors to controversial issues of each phase of the Synagogue’s occupation. If you want to experience a deluge of technology on a museum excursion, this is not the exhibition to attend, but if you desire clear communication and an engaging experience, “The Synagogue Speaks” is a choice you will not regret.

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