The Natural History Museum in New York City is an iconic institution.
Millions of visitors pay homage to and revel in the incredible treasures of our collective past.
Within the permanent collection hangs an 81-year old diorama portraying a meeting between European Colonists and Indigenous Lenape leaders from the year 1660. The scene depicts the native Lenape people in loincloths, with the settlers' grand ships landing in the background.
Over time, the museum had a reckoning.
The story they were telling was inaccurate and the cultural reality is far from what is engraved in this glass scene. For one, the harbor would have been full of canoes and the Lenape leaders would have dressed in finery to attend the meeting.
What was the museum to do? Should the exhibit be shattered and swept away, or should it be left untouched? And what about the pieces that are true?
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. – H. Havelock Ellis
Rabbinic tradition suggests that the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt because they kept three identifiable practices: They called their children Hebrew names, wore traditional clothes, and spoke their native language. It is precisely these actions that led the Jews to became a nation.
For centuries to come, Jews would preserve their collective identity through insular practices and rituals, often by distinguishing themselves from their neighbors. While this separation came at the expense of blending into broader societies, it fueled a palpable sense of Jewish belonging.
But what if there were other parts of their identity that did change?
What is it about these three practices that allowed for both identity formation and redemption?
Consider what pieces of yourself you choose to express that reflect an image of how you want to be seen.
How do you decide what is precious enough to emphasize, and does that come at a price? How might those decisions cause you to grow and change?
In this exercise, identify the significance of your name, appearance, and language in your life.
We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. -Joan Didion
In evaluating what to do with the Lenape diorama, the curators went back to the drawing board.
They wondered why this story had the privilege of being archived. They considered whose voices are present, and whose are excluded. And they questioned what about this story needs to be remembered, and what needs to be forgotten.
Looking at our past from a new perspective is not an easy task, and often requires vulnerability, humility and openness. But it affords us an opportunity to ensure that our values either hold truth or can be evolved to reflect the current reality.
To illustrate this idea, we turn to Altered Books.
This mixed media approach uses original source material to edit and build upon a text, preserving the original work but updating and enhancing it to take on new meanings and illuminate new revelations. See here for examples of Altered Books.
Try it for yourself!
The Talmud’s premise that “objects for holiness are to be stored away” implies that once artifacts become intrinsically holy, they cannot be discarded or destroyed.
This Jewish practice of preserving holy artifacts goes back hundreds of years and has become the source of our most valuable collections. Ancient synagogues often had storage areas called a Geniza that were designated for worn out religious artifacts before burial, the most famous one discovered to date being the Cairo Geniza.
For a glimpse into the Cairo Geniza, watch this clip:
Not everything needs to be stored away in a crypt; under particular circumstances, holy objects could be repurposed, elevated and transformed, giving them a new life.
Preservation often implies an unwillingness to adapt. When change is necessary, however, we don’t need to dissolve what was held onto.
Rather, we can distill, concentrate and amplify the essence of what was preserved to serve as the foundation for transformation.
To understand this concept, we turn to Jewish food. Our friends at The Gefilteria have prepared this pickling video that demonstrates the process of transformation, specifically through acts of preservation.
So, what ended up happening at the Natural History Museum?
The curators ultimately decided to preserve the diorama while updating the display. Keeping record of the inaccurate history was as important as adding the corrections.