- “What’s Universal and Unique?”Or How Can a Culturally Circumscribed Museum Exhibition Provide Inclusive Meaning?
Professional baseball’s increasing cultural diversity1 is reflected in museum exhibitions that display the ways in which different cultural groups have experienced the game of baseball. In March 2014, a special exhibition on Jews and baseball, “Chasing Dreams,” opened at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. To explore more broadly the potential meaning and influence of the imminent exhibition, the authors sought the perspectives of some of its potential subjects: Jewish players, coaches, and broadcasters. Twenty Jewish professional baseball staff and players were interviewed prior to the exhibition’s opening and asked how they would want an exhibition like “Chasing Dreams” to be constructed.
Interviewees asserted that, to faithfully present the story of Jews and baseball, the exhibition has “got to be unique,” and one stated, “The more unique and wonder involved makes it that much better.” At the same time, interviewees felt the exhibition, while focusing on Jews, should strive to attract and engage culturally diverse visitors. One asked, “What’s universal and unique?” about a culturally-specific exhibition. An analogous question was posed by literary critic and historicist Stephen Greenblatt, whose museological use of the terms “resonance” and “wonder” paralleled interviewees’ use of the terms “universal” and “unique.”
context: unique works, universal work
Writing about exhibitions of culture, Greenblatt connected wonder to “an arresting sense of uniqueness” and resonance to universality, to “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world.”2 Wonder inspires “admiration and intimations of genius.”3 While “admiration” underscores the observer’s sense of wonder, “intimations” suggests more than hints of genius; “intimation” also denotes revelation, often [End Page 48] through an observer’s inference—in this case, of the work that went into creating works of genius—and thus connotes resonance. In other words, wonder ought to evoke resonance: “The impact of most exhibitions is likely to be enhanced if there is a strong initial appeal to wonder, a wonder that then leads to a desire for resonance.”4 Context functions “to reduce the isolation of individual ‘masterpieces’” by serving “to illuminate the conditions of their making.”5 Wonder becomes resonant when the observer is shown how works of genius arose and elicits appreciation for the work and desire to apply—in some form and to some field of endeavor—those acts of creation.
Interviewees agreed. They advocated displaying more than the usual artifacts that symbolize extraordinary on-field accomplishments. One interviewee, for example, declared, “If it was just, ‘Hey, we’ve got an exhibit, and here’s a Koufax glove …’ people are going to say, ‘I’ve seen this and done that.’ … But if that’s the driving force, then once they get there, it’s all the other stuff around that that’s going to make the experience that people are going to tell their friends about.” That other stuff includes contexts of achievements, the personal story behind “Koufax’s glove.”
The exhibition could thus represent baseball “masterpieces” alongside the process of gaining mastery, in order to inspire thoughts of imitation—internalization and personalization of observed contexts. For example, in addition to displaying the bat that Jewish baseball star Shawn Green used when he collected a record 19 total bases in one nine-inning game, the exhibition could include the Tanner Tee that Green used religiously to develop his masterful swing.6 In presenting the rise of Detroit prospect Ben Guez, the exhibition could convey his feeling that preparing for his bar mitzvah facilitated his success in professional baseball.7 In observing baseball luminaries, visitors could follow their ascent.
One interviewee proposed adding an experiential element to guide visitors along professional baseball paths. Doing so, he suggested, would move the exhibition from wonder to resonance, from culturally unique, “Jews in baseball,” to phenomenologically universal, “you in baseball”:
Not everyone is fortunate enough to play professional baseball, so if you can’t do that but you want to get into the world of sports, to show that there are other avenues. You can be...