Set in the most apropos place reflective of American freedom, the newly designed National Museum of Jewish American History (NMJAH) opened in late November 2010 on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, across from the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historical Park, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. James Polshek and his New York-based firm Ennead Architects designed the new 100,000-sq.-ft., five story structure, which is being billed as “the only museum in the nation dedicated solely to telling the story of Jews in America” from 1654 through today.
Relocated from a 15,000-sq.-ft. building down the street, where it was located since its opening in 1976, the new museum establishes a relationship with its historic setting through its façade of interlocking opaque and transparent elements of terracotta and glass. The designers created principal exhibition spaces made of terracotta as “a metaphor for the strength of Jewish survival and the protection of the freedoms that are fundamental to American history.” This material use corresponds well to
the nearby brick buildings, while the glass and masonry enclosure offers transparency, linking the museum with its surroundings and welcoming in the community.
Two notable works of art further anchor the museum in its setting and unite the new building with its historic mission. Created in 1876, a sculpture called “Religious Liberty” was carefully restored to contrast with the museum’s minimal glass façade. And a new LED sculpture called “Beacon,” designed by artist Ben Rubin with panels reflecting pages of the Talmud (a central text of mainstream Judaism), is set on the uppermost corner of the façade. According to Polshek, “Beacon” has a dual meaning: one as a reference to the torch of the Statue of Liberty and the other as a metaphor for the eternal light.
A dramatic, 85-ft.-tall atrium connects six levels of interiors, including four floors of interactive exhibits, a changing exhibition gallery, a 200-seat auditorium, an education center, café, and gift shop. Gallagher & Associates designed the exhibit spaces, with curatorial help from the museum’s deputy director Josh Perelman, to accurately portray the Jewish experience in America, broken out into historic chapters: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654 to 1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880 to 1945” and “Choices and Challenges of Freedom 1945 to Today.” The designers weave an accurate portrait of the plight and accomplishments of Jews in America through a collection of 25,000 artifacts, as well as borrowed objects, reproductions, videos, and play areas for youngsters. Featured in a multimedia area in the lobby, a Hall of Fame exhibit called the “Only in America Gallery” honors outstanding contributions by notable Jewish Americans selected via online voting—from Albert Einstein and Golda Meir to Irving Berlin and Barbra Streisand to Estée Lauder and Sandy Koufax.