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Staff Profile: Ilana Segal, Spertus Curator of Collections

Staff Profile: Ilana Segal, Spertus Curator of Collections

Interview by Marc Zarefsky
August 26, 2010

How did the Uncovered & Rediscovered: Stories of Jewish Chicago exhibit project first get started?

The Chicago Jewish history exhibit is an effort to play to the strengths of the Spertus collections. It makes liberal use of our fine art collection and of our collection of archival materials, and also of the skills of our staff. It also is a response to the needs of our constituents. We heard from focus groups that Jews of all ages and backgrounds in Chicago are interested in learning more of their family’s pasts, and the idea of a Chicago Jewish history project really resonated with them.

Uncovered & Rediscovered is a multi-year exhibit presented in eight chapters (each several months long). How did the chapter idea come about?

I’m attracted to the idea of telling the story of Chicago Jewry through stories. While researching for this exhibit and reading all kinds of historical works on Chicago’s Jewish past, the material I felt was the most compelling told individual stories. That’s where I got the idea of framing the exhibit with stories that comprise chapters.

I think it also gives us an opportunity to think about our history from a lot of different perspectives. Some of the chapters are more chronologically structured; others are examinations of certain phenomena. It gives us more opportunities to think about Chicago’s Jewish past in different ways.

Can you give me a little bit of a synopsis of the eight chapters that will be explored during the exhibit?

The first chapter of the exhibit is Chicago’s Jewish Pioneers. Running from Sept. 19 through Dec. 2, this section will focus on the mostly German Jewish immigrants who founded Chicago’s first synagogue and other early institutions between 1840 and 1880. The second chapter will be called Paved in Gold? The Road to Maxwell Street. This chapter, which is centered around 1880-1920, is about the influx of Eastern European Jews to Chicago. It deals with labor issues, the process of integration, and of course, the Maxwell Street market. The third chapter, North, South, East, and West, is about population movement and is organized by neighborhood.

Future chapters will touch on building the Jewish community, educational institutions, Jews in public culture, the quest for a Jewish homeland, and Jews in arts and culture.

When you think of Chicago’s Jewish history, what is the first word that comes to mind?

Organized. Already in the 1800s there were very early efforts to centralize Jewish relief. Today Chicago Jewry is very strongly organized by [The Jewish] Federation [of Metropolitan Chicago], whose predecessors go back to the 19th century. I’m from New York and we have a Federation there, but it’s not as strong or as encompassing as it is in Chicago, so it’s interesting to see the roots of that organization.

What was the most interesting part of the research process for you?

One thing I find fascinating is to see how the landscape has so radically altered in so little time. When Jews first settled in Chicago, even before they organized a congregation, they established a burial society (in the 1840s). The burial ground that they bought was an acre that is now Lincoln Park (they had to relocate it soon after because sand would cover and obscure the graves). I live a block away from Lincoln Park now, and it is interesting to imagine that there was a Jewish burial ground there not too long ago.

What do you think are some of the most unique items that will be featured during the course of the multi-year exhibit?

Spertus’ collection contains one of the earliest incubators. The incubator is one of the innovations that came out of Michael Reese Hospital. Some other unique items are tickets and souvenir books from Romance of the People, a massive pageant that was the culmination of Jewish Day at the World’s Fair in 1933. It was a testimony to how far Jews had come in a short amount of time.

One of the things that seems to make Uncovered & Rediscovered unique is the interactivity of the exhibit. One of those elements is the media center that will be located on the 2nd floor at Spertus. What will be featured in that center?

It is a nice opportunity to see a variety of footage from our archives, things like the Chicago Radical Jewish Elders Project and TV shows like The Magic Door and Of Cabbages and Kings.

Another fascinating element of the exhibit will be the Greater Chicago Jewish Memory Map, where visitors will be able to insert their own memories into an interactive map of the Chicago Area. How did that idea come about, and why do you think it is important for this exhibit in particular?

In considering how to deal with the present, I toyed with the idea of devoting the last chapter of the exhibit to it, but concluded that we don’t have enough historical perspective to know what are the most important and lasting aspects of this stage. So we decided to let visitors tell their own stories and bring our exhibit up-to-date.

We created a custom Google map, which is a format that I think people are used to seeing and interacting with. Visitors will be invited to put points down on the map at places that are of personal significance to them and to tell everyone why and even upload photos. Like Wikipedia, it will be a democratic tool that encourages participation and doesn’t favor one person’s story over any other.

Why is the title Uncovered & Rediscovered significant?

On a daily basis many of us pass through neighborhoods or intersections that are rich with Chicago Jewish history and we have no idea. When we are standing near Lake and Wells downtown, how many of us know that we are at the site of Chicago’s first synagogue?

The title also reflects our perception that Chicagoans want to discover their own lost family stories. We can help fill in some blanks by sharing stories of neighborhoods, institutions, and even personalities that were important to Chicago Jewry but no longer exist today.

What would you like visitors to come away with after seeing the exhibit?

One takeaway could be that Jews have made contributions in so many fields, but for me it’s been more about the complexity of the Jewish experience.

What I like is that there are multiple points of entry. It is accessible to all types of visitors with all sorts of backgrounds. There are the scholarly artifacts. There’s interactive media. There’s music and video. It lets people be engaged and participatory; it’s not just a static form of learning.

We’re trying to create as many avenues as possible for people with all kinds of interests and backgrounds to access this material and get excited about Chicago Jewish history. #

Thursday, August 26, 2010