I met Rob Levin, NMAJH’s Community Relations Liaison, at the opening of an art exhibition at City Hall. After our short conversation, I said I’d like to have my Rutgers Camden undergraduate students in museum studies program speak with him. I arrange for them to meet several museum professionals during the semester, and sometimes select colleagues selfishly, because I want to learn more about the responsibilities of their positions. What does it mean to direct visitor services, manage exhibitions, or in Rob’s case, liaise with the community?
We arranged to meet at the museum, but none of us were entirely prepared for Rob – which was just what he intended. He approached the group with a query, which he had to repeat several times – in Portuguese! When we realized that he was, indeed, in the right place and not a lost member of the public, and after we had each given an awkward response to his greeting, he switched to English and asked us to account for our reactions to our introduction. As with all good teachers, he had demonstrated what his job involves, rather than describe it.
None of the students were Jewish, and as such, they represented part of the community that the NMAJH and Rob, in particular, work to engage. And very successfully so. They were uniformly very enthusiastic about the visit. They found the exhibitions interesting and clearly laid out, and particularly responded to the numerous interactive aspects, even when the interactions were nothing more sophisticated than trying on Purim masks. I was particularly struck by the way the exhibition encouraged them to connect their own family histories to the various situations that Jewish families encountered in America, universalizing what might at first seem foreign or unfamiliar. And they were delighted to find that, as a reward for handing in a short survey about the visit, they were sent passes to be used on a future occasion.
Rob, of course, could sell umbrellas in the desert. His boundless enthusiasm made a huge impression, as did his discussion of having a personal mission, which he uses as a guide in addition to the more usual institutional mission on which I put particular emphasis in teaching. I was struck by his discussion about putting significant time into other community organizations as a necessary part of building their interest in NMAJH. I have always thought that it’s important for museum staff to support the entire institutional community, rather than only supporting their own. It is the decent thing to do, and inevitably reflects well on the home institution.
The first time I brought a class to NMAJH it was to meet with Cobi Weissbach, Associate Director of Development. My reaction to that visit was to join the museum. That decision was more than rewarded by the recent opportunity this year’s class had to meet Rob Levin.
By Andrea Kirsh, Director, Minor in Museum Studies, Rutgers, Camden and regular contributor to Artblog.