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Soundscape of Immigrant Voices Shapes Exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage

“Voices of Liberty” is a soundscape of voices of immigrants — among them Daniel Libeskind, Henry Kissinger, Holocaust survivors, Soviet refuseniks, Rwandans fleeing genocide — telling stories about arriving in America for the first time. Neil Diamond would approve.

The view from the second floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage at the tip of Manhattan is spectacular: It faces the Statue of Liberty, who lifts her torch over the harbor, close to Ellis Island, the first landing point for many immigrants to these shores. Overlooking that inspirational scene, a new museum exhibit captures those refugees’ voices as they recall seeing America for the first time, as well as the experiences that caused them to flee their homelands and the joy and angst their arrival hereengendered.

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While the museum is designated as a “Living Memorial to the Holocaust,” the exhibit, “Voices of Liberty,” is not limited to Holocaust survivors. Voices of Rwandan genocide survivors, Soviet refuseniks, and others are also included, and some high-profile immigrants, among them architect Daniel Libeskind, HenryKissinger, and Dr. Ruth, share their stories.

Listen to Daniel Libeskind talk about first seeing the Statue of Liberty:

Andre Kessler, of Bucharest, Romania, arrived in the U.S. in 1951. He remembers the passage over, during which everyone was seasick but him. “I was always hanging over the railing of the ship,” he recalls. “They were always afraid that I was going to fall overboard, but it was the first taste of freedom.”

Celia Kener, of Lvov, Poland, arrived in the U.S. in 1949. She recalls the fear she had in her new land. “If I crossed the street against the light, I thought that I’d be punished or be putaway because I did something wrong and it took awhile for that to go away.”

JacquelineMurekatete, who arrived in the U.S. in 1995 from Gitarama, Rwanda, says her first experience of America was stunning. “It was a huge shock. Adjusting to living in a house, with electricity, with running water, with cars on the streets.” And, she says, “Ihad fears, actually, about how I would cope once I got to America. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anything about the culture.”

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“Voicesof Liberty,” which opens on Nov. 6th, is part of the Keeping History Center, a wing of the museum devoted to showcasing the institution’s ideas and collections as part of an interactive experience.

The exhibit, funded by a grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and built on landfill from the World Trade Center, was designed both to take advantage of the museum’s unique geographic and geologic connection to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Ground Zero, and to reinforce the ideathat “people should be part of the history that we keep,” says Ivy L. Barsky, the museum’s deputy director. Voices are culled from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, the Museum’s own collection, and other sources.

While most exhibits focus on artifacts, “museums and libraries don’t just collect three dimensional things,” says Jonathan Alger, a partner at design firm C&G Partners, who created the exhibit in league with the design and technology firm, Potion. “Remember things like the tapes of FDR’s fireside chats, or videos of the moon landing.”

museum of jewish heritage

This exhibit is an example of Web 2.0 in exhibition design, he says. “The content is not just distributed out. It starts a two-way conversation.”

Visitors to the exhibit will be invited to share their own stories of coming to America, which will then become part of the exhibit. There’s a computer at the site where guests can record their experiences in a kind of ongoing guest book, or people can contribute via the Web.

The exhibition design takes advantage of cutting-edge technology to deliver a simple, intuitive experience. Visitors are provided with a specially customized iPod Touch and headphones. They then walk through the exhibition, entering circles identified by themes — “Leaving,” “First Impressions,” “Adapting,””Lost in Translation,” and others. As they enter the circle, the audio system responds to the physical location, triggering corresponding images and voices. As a result, everyone in the samecircle has the same experience simultaneously.

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“The idea was, ‘How can we make something where the user interface is all about walking around,'” says Jared Schiffman of Potion. “We knew that if we put a lot of touch-based functionality in the guide, it would distract from the audio. Now, the primary UI is not on the iPod; it’s your body.”

Older patrons without a lot of tech experience are finding the exhibit as easy to navigate as younger audiences, Barsky says. But the younger ones are particularly intrigued by the refugees’ tales.

A group of fifth graders previewed the show before it opened. “This is New York City,” Barsky says.”Every school kid is at least first-generation. I was surprised how much thekids enjoyed this.”

[Museum exterior photo by Adam Riggall]

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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