NMAJH digitizes the main exhibitions in a virtual “revolution”

A digital view of the main exhibit on the second floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History | Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama

The National Museum of American Jewish History launched a virtual tour of its main exhibit on November 14, scanning the museum’s permanent exhibits on all three floors of the building.

Completion of the project was made possible by undisclosed financial support from Jewish philanthropist George Blumenthal, who has been regularly involved with NMAJH since 2014, when he and his frequent collaborator and Israeli digitization expert Ardon Bar-Hama digitized the show. NMAJH’s “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” special. exposure.

“Since I got involved with NMAJH to help digitize the 2014 special exhibit, ‘Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American,’ I have been interested in expanding access to the museum’s main exhibit,” said Blumenthal in a press release. “As an American Jew, I know how important it is to tell the story of our people in this country. Now, NMAJH will be able to reach a wider audience than ever. Sky is the limit.”

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Bar-Hama also partnered with Blumenthal for NMAJH’s most recent digitization project, which allows an online user to not only explore the museum layout by clicking around the page, but also to view all showcases, zooming in on the showcases to view each item and descriptions in more detail. detail.

Bar-Hama installed a server for the virtual exhibit in Germany on a different robust server farm than the one used by the museum’s website, from which the exhibit can be viewed across the world.

The virtual exhibit provides the audience with even more detail than the physical exhibit, allowing online users to flip through books and view objects from different angles, rather than just seeing them behind the exhibit glass.

“Not only did we point out that [audiences viewing the exhibit online] can actually come to the museum – for those who can’t come to Philadelphia – but they can get more detail and convenience on the computer screen by doing it that way, ”Bar-Hama said.

In a black and white photo, Ardon Bar Hama, a white man with short hair and a colorful shirt, smiles with his mouth closed and looks slightly above the camera.
Ardon Bar-Hama | Courtesy of Ardon Bar-Hama

NMAJH flew Bar-Hama from Israel to Philadelphia in September 2020 when the museum was closed, and Bar-Hama spent nearly two weeks photographing the exhibit.

Digitizing the exhibits involved Bar-Hama taking 360-degree panoramic photographs around the museum to capture its layout, then photographing hundreds of objects in and out of their display cases from different angles. He used a camera with flash tubes protected against ultraviolet rays, so as not to damage objects with light.

Bar-Hama used this technique to photograph and digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Aleppo Codex, the earliest known Hebrew manuscript containing the full text of the Torah. He also digitized an exhibit for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, but digitizing the entirety of NMAJH’s main exhibit is his biggest endeavor.

“It’s a revolution,” Bar-Hama said. “I don’t think you’ll find – if you google it – even a single museum on the web that you can see completely.”

NMAJH has been at the forefront of efforts by museums across the country to make museums more accessible to the public, according to NMAJH Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Interpretation Josh Perelman.

During the museum’s pandemic-induced closure, NMAJH hosted a host of online programs, attracting 4 million viewers. Perelman hopes the virtual tour will make the museum even more accessible.

A red fez and two bronze-colored Turkish coffee makers are displayed against a gray-purple background.
A digitized photograph of a fez, donated in 2000 by Donna, Joseph and Victor Hatchwell | Photos by Ardon Bar-Hama

“The root of a project is a commitment to access and accessibility,” said Perelman. “We often think of museums as destinations – as they should be… but knowledge, educational potential, exploration should not be limited to the few who can visit.”

But now that the museum plans to reopen to the general public after only being available for certain private events, Perelman believes virtual exhibits will not replace visiting NMAJH’s physical space.

“I imagine a future where museums create in-person and virtual experiences with a lot more intention,” said Perelman, “blending both the experiences they offer inside their buildings with associated experiences which can be explored on the Internet or any type of device. . “

NMAJH emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy on September 17 after receiving a $ 10 million pledge from longtime former administrator Mitchell Morgan, who purchased the museum building and loaned it to the museum for $ 1,000 per month.

The museum is now able to prioritize its growth through innovative experiences, and the digital exhibits exemplify NMAJH’s focus on transforming the experience of visiting a museum.

Perelman believes that NMAJH can be a pioneer on this front.

“What it really does is expand the museum’s ability to continue to lead, to continue to be a leader in the nation in educating and interpreting the experiences of American Jews,” said Perelman. “It expands our reach and our reputation at the same time. “

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