By: Ellie Gettinger, Education Director
I am sitting at LaGuardia reflecting on the past two whirlwind days. I am flying back after the opening of Stitching History From the Holocaust and completely overwhelmed by the experience. Walking into the gallery at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I was bowled over the staging of the exhibit and seeing Hedy Strnad’s eight dresses staged in their beautiful space. I couldn’t let the experience go without reflecting on what this means for Jewish Museum Milwaukee and for me personally.
JMM is a small museum that opened roughly eight years ago. The materials that were donated by the Strnad family in 1998 before the Museum was a glimmer in founding director’s Kathie Bernstein’s eye. We brought new life to these materials–eight dress designs, one letter, two envelopes, and one picture–as they became part of JMM’s permanent exhibit. They are central to the story we tell and visitors were impacted by the elements of the story that we presented.
As we proceeded to research and curate this larger exhibit, many people were pulled into the orbit of this exhibit. The Strnad family, the team from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Costume Shop, researchers and humanities scholars in Milwaukee, Prague, the producers and talent at The Arts Page, which airs on Milwaukee Public Television, students, docents, visitors–all became part of the cult of Hedy. They were pulled into the idea of giving this woman, this couple, this family back some part of the legacy that was taken from them. When the exhibit was in Milwaukee, we reached thousands of people. National publicity, including an article by Samuel Freedman in the New York Times and a piece on PBS Newshour Weekend, created a buzz and we received so many inquiries about whether visitors would be able to see this exhibit elsewhere.
All of this energy followed me on my trip to open Stitching History in New York. The audience in New York expands the reach of this story considerably. The curation and design in New York is just lovely, adding elements to the exhibit that enliven the story–I love the addition of Hedy’s Signature to the wall and the ingenious way in which they MJH team made the fabrics accessible to touch. More than this, the position of the Museum of Jewish Heritage overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, offer yet another narrative ark to the story. Here we see Hedy’s beautiful dresses in the shadow of icons of American immigration.
This is yet another beginning for this exhibit, another chance to induct more people into Hedy’s sway. And it is start of a broader national conversation in which people all over the country will have the opportunity to be part of this story. At the end of the opening event, one patron came up to me and said, “I am taking Hedy with me.” She thanked me and this Museum for sharing her story. We hope that so many more will come away with this feeling.