Ask a Curator: Bonnie Gurewitsch, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow Part One
At Levine Museum of the New South, we love sharing history with compelling, often surprising stories that help people connect with the past and each other. The new exhibit, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refuge Scholars at Black Colleges, does exactly that.
The exhibit was inspired by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb's landmark book From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges and curated by Bonnie Gurewitsch, a recently retired Archivist and Curator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City. We had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Gurewitsch for our "Ask a Curator" series. Here's Part One and be sure to visit the Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow exhibit on display now through September 14.
What was your first reaction to the story behind "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow?"
My first exposure to the story was the film "From Swastika to Jim Crow", by Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler. It was offered to the Museum of Jewish Heritage as a public program. I was among the staff members who previewed it. I was fascinated. I had never heard of Jewish refugee scholars teaching at colleges for black students. When Steven Fischler offered to provide us with contact information and the research notes he had collected during the making of the film, we agreed that we should work on telling this story in exhibit form.
As a curator, what challenges did you face during the curatorial process?
Outlining a story that would accurately reflect the experiences of the refugee scholars and the black students, then finding the artifacts that would illustrate the main points of that story, and setting the story in the three-dimensional setting of an exhibition. We decided to create parallel background areas, one for the scholars' backgrounds and their immigration to the US, and a second for the background of the students and their decisions to go to college. We brought the two story strands together in the central section of the exhibition-the encounter, and showed the effects of the encounter on both groups.
What have you discovered during your curation of this exhibit?
In the course of researching the topic, I discovered that the story is more nuanced than it seemed at first glance. Jewish refugee scholars were not generally welcomed at American colleges and universities. Refugee scholars had a very difficult time finding teaching positions; some took interim jobs just to support themselves, such as Prof. Fales and his wife. Teaching at historically black colleges may not have been their first choice, but it was often the only job available. The scholars knew as little about the students and their culture as the students knew about the professors and their background. There was a learning process of getting to know each other.
Tomorrow read more about the curation of Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refuge Scholars at Black Colleges in Part Two.