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Museum Musings

Becoming Established

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valerie gay by matthew christopherMay 28, 2013

By guest blogger, Valerie V. Gay, Executive Director, Art Sanctuary 

“Naturalize: intransitive verb: to become established as if native” (Merriam Webster)

On a beautifully blustery spring morning, I was privileged to witness 47 people from 31 countries become “established” as US citizens during a simple and elegant ceremony held at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
In fact, it was a day of privileges: I was asked to introduce and sing “God Bless America” during the ceremony. Prior to this occasion, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that Irving Berlin, born, Israel Isidore Beilin, immigrated from what is now Belarus to the United States. I always thought of him as one the most important “American” composers: an important American composer. Period. So my first privilege that day was to remind these newly established Americans that immigrants like them have made incredible contributions to our country and the people who live herein.

The 2nd privilege that day came as a surprise. As a participant in the program, I was asked to stand in the receiving line and shake the hands of each person as s/he walked across the stage of the auditorium having first received his/her Certificate of Naturalization. The smile never left my face as I shook each hand, looked each person in the eye and said, “Congratulations!” I was privileged and honored to be one of the first to welcome these new citizens, and I don’t think I will ever forget the look of gratitude on the face of one particular elderly woman, who has undoubtedly experienced much in her life. The tears in her eyes mirrored my own, as I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride for a group of people I’d never met before and will probably never meet again, but with whom I now share a profound memory.

I know all is not right with our country; there are so many societal ills and injustices within our borders. One can easily wax on about a plethora of systems that are broken; however, even with all of our messiness, I’m glad to be an American and can choose to join others to fix the broken. My ancestors did not choose to come to this country, but once here they no doubt aspired to have the freedom we enjoy. Which brings me to the 3rd and final privilege of this experience: being reminded that I have a responsibility to those who came before me (many of whom did not have the opportunities I enjoy), and those who will follow, to exercise my inalienable rights as an American citizen, not just for my benefit, but for the benefit of my family and community.  

naturalization ceremony 

Valerie V. Gay is the Executive Director of the Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia. Having been named one of Philadelphia’s “101 Connector Leaders,” Ms. Gay serves on the Board of Directors of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Marian Anderson Award and the Blues Babe Foundation, is a Trustee for the Concerto Project of New York, is a member of the Arts Rising Steering Committee, Fresh Artists Advisory Council, and Virtuoso Committee for the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

An Abundance of Alabama

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Over a year later, we are still so excited that Margaret Anne Goldsmith, a descendent of the first four Jewish families to settle in Huntsville, Alabama, chose to donate a large collection of family heirlooms to the Museum’s artifact collection in 2012. In our collection, this family’s Southern experience improves our holdings by providing a meaningful counterpoint to the more well-known stories of the Jewish communities of the big cities, especially those on the East Coast.

All German Jewish immigrants, the Herstein, Bernstein, and Schiffman families settled in Huntsville in the 1850s and Oscar Goldsmith arrived soon after; subsequent generations united these four families in marriage. Members of the family have figured in every phase of the history of that city, both economically – from the agrarian years of the nineteenth century through Huntsville’s growth into “Rocket City” after World War II – and socially – from the time of institutionalized slavery before the Civil War to segregation to the civil rights era.

Ms. Goldsmith has been very generous with her legacy, sharing her family’s story through many outlets and donating or lending heirlooms and papers to several museums and libraries. She recently donated land to the city for a nature preserve and an elementary school, and established an artist’s group that works closely with the nature preserve.

We are proud to present a new installation of artifacts from this collection on the first floor of the Museum, which is free to the public. In addition to those artifacts we are also displaying more artifacts upstairs in the core exhibition, and more will be installed in the coming months. When you visit, see if you can pick them out!

But the objects that are now on display are the tip of a wonderful Alabama iceberg and the collection we received consists of many letters, photographs, books, business ephemera, and personal artifacts ranging from clothing and candlesticks to shaving mugs and poker sets. It is currently being inventoried and photographed before it is formally accessioned, a process that will be ongoing through the coming months. This phase will involve continued research, condition assessment, and careful measurement of each object as it is processed into our collections management database and coded so that it will be easily accessible to scholars and curators. Additionally, each object will be safely rehoused so that it can be preserved for future generations – an incredibly important part of our mission.

The Goldsmith family is to be commended for their careful stewardship of these artifacts over the years, and we can’t thank them enough for making the decision to donate them to the NMAJH!

Contributed by Claire Pingel, Chief Registrar and Associate Curator
May 1, 2013

Margaret Anne Goldsmith poses with a grandfather clock and a portrait of herself by Maurice Grosser that she recently gave to the Museum in memory of the Bernstein, Herstein, Schiffman and Goldsmith families (2011.151)