Q&A with Marilyn Kushner: Telling JDC’s Story

May 6, 2014


It’s crunch time at the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS), the venerable museum on the Upper West Side that showcases the rich history of Gotham.

On June 13, “I Live. Send Help” — an exhibit chronicling a century of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) global service — will open; the culmination of three years’ work.

Photos are being printed and mounted. Captions, written and rewritten. Even the minutest details — like what kind of font to use — are being heatedly debated.

Overseeing this painstaking process is Marilyn Kushner, the Curator and Head, Department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections at N-YHS. Kushner isn’t sure how many exhibits she’s curated in her career — at least 40, she estimates. Yet even after decades of work, she still feels a sense of excitement at every opening.

“It’s like giving birth, which I’ve done four times,” she told JDC over the phone. “Then you’re on a high and you’re very excited. And then the show closes, the children move away, and it’s a downer. It’s sad. But in a way we’ve done something good, we’ve told a story and that’s still here after the exhibition is gone. It’s a wonderful experience.”

Kushner took the time to answer a few questions about the N-YHS/JDC collaboration.

Q: How did this cooperation between N-YHS and JDC come about?

A: This exhibit sits very well with what the N-YHS does. It’s all about the history of New York: the history of JDC and the founding of JDC by New Yorkers like Henry Morgenthau and Jacob Schiff that keeps coming back to New York. It’s a part of New York that we don’t always see. It’s an organization that is centered here.

Q: How involved were you in putting the exhibit together?

A: I know that JDC Archives Director Linda Levi gives me a lot of credit, but I have to say this was an enormous team effort. I didn’t choose this checklist alone. There are so many people that worked so hard on this.

Q: When did it first begin?

A: “We began talking about this exhibition three years ago and I remember going over to the JDC offices where Linda brought in her team as I explained to them how an exhibition is done. I returned to the offices a number of times as the JDC staff pulled together the objects and images relating to the organization’s work. There were hundreds of objects and I was sitting there thinking how can we bring this down to under 100?”

Q: You were already familiar with JDC’s work?

A: Yes, I have been active in the Jewish community and actually visited Jews in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

Q: How did you and JDC Archives pick the final 100 items?

A: I told the staff to choose personal stories that will drive each time period — that was not easy, and winnowing out is often the most difficult part of doing an exhibition. Of course, everyone wants to tell every story and that’s not ever possible. It was painful for me to say you can’t have this or that. You know there are so many stories that are poignant because of the history of the Jews and the way in which JDC has become such a global humanitarian organization.

Q: Was there any particular image, story, or item in the exhibit that touched you?

A: For me some of the most moving images are of European refugees who are pictured arriving in Israel after the Holocaust. There is one of children survivors from Buchenwald on a train, having been rescued — they are being transported to an orphanage in France. Bringing JDC’s activities closer to the present, we have included an image of a bus evacuation of Jews and non-Jews from Sarajevo to Split, Croatia in 1993 or an image of JDC distributing relief supplies in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Q: On a personal note, how did you become a curator?

A: I fell in love with art on a family trip to Europe after my sophomore year in college. I had already declared a history major but I ended up with a double major in history and art history. Later I did a Master’s and then a PhD in art history.

Q: Is there anything people might find surprising at the exhibit?

A: I’ve spoken to many Jewish friends of mine who didn’t know that JDC also does non-sectarian work — even I didn’t realize how much. It’s an amazing organization that is steeped in such important history.

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