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  • Creating Our Shared Story200 Years of Jewish Cincinnati
  • Christine Schmid Engels

In 1821, the first Jewish cemetery in Cincinnati was established at the corner of Chestnut Street and Central Avenue.1 2021 began a yearlong celebration and commemoration of two hundred years of Jewish life in Cincinnati. Led by the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial Committee, every aspect of the celebration was a result of collaboration among numerous local groups, institutions, and individuals. A sample of the events included lectures, historical tours and exhibits, art and music, family fun opportunities, and cooking and genealogy lessons. It provided the perfect opportunity to delve into the rich history and culture of Cincinnati's Jewish community, while also anticipating the future.

The bicentennial committee sought to create an exhibition that would reach beyond Cincinnati's Jewish community and share its stories widely. By creating the exhibition at Cincinnati Museum Center, the committee hoped to invite audiences of all backgrounds to see themselves, their families, or communities in the vignettes. The exhibition, Our Shared Story, opened in April 2022, and the bicentennial celebration will end when the exhibition closes in October.

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The Cincinnati Museum Center hoped to connect audiences of all backgrounds to the story of Jewish Cincinnati with its exhibition. Courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center.

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The Cincinnati Museum Center partnered with the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust and Humanity Center; the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Hebrew Union College; the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati; and the Cincinnati Skirball Museum to create this exhibition. Combining their talented staffs and bountiful archives, we created something far more meaningful than anything we could have done individually.

Curating an exhibition takes creativity, flexibility, and patience, doubly so during a pandemic. We held nearly every meeting virtually, and some collaborators were still working from home as we began planning. As vaccines became available, we were optimistic that people would be ready to see the exhibition in person.

Each of the institutional partners initially dug into its collections to search for the most compelling stories it could tell with its artifacts. As a museum, we searched each of our history collections for common themes and storylines we could draw out to create a rich story. We wanted visually interesting items, but to engage multiple senses, we also pursued audio and video clips, smells, and tactile items. Whenever possible, we used something from each collection, so every vignette has an object, photo, media clip, and printed, handwritten or typed paper item. This technique allowed us to tell the story from different perspectives or with slightly different focuses.

Once each institution shared its lists with the others, some common themes emerged. We also saw that we had an overabundance of compelling stories to tell and that narrowing those down would be a challenge. We accomplished that

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The exhibit had a rich collection of artifacts to chose from, including suitcases that speak to the arrival of Jews from abroad. Courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center.

[End Page 74] with talented exhibit designers and writers and with communication among the institutions and community partners. We were deeply concerned that we tell the stories our guests want to hear in addition to those professional staff chose. Other generous local institutions and individuals loaned us items to fill in narrative gaps.

We could have designed the exhibition in countless ways, but we highlighted stories both unique to Cincinnati and universal and relatable to anyone anywhere. There is no correct order in which to view the exhibition, and the circular design of the gallery lends itself to guests freely wandering and circling back to reexamine items. The first two sections, "Stories of Arrival" and "Traditions," include crates and suitcases immigrants brought with them to Cincinnati; these help illustrate their owners' ingenuity and tenacity. The "Traditions" section celebrates the centrality of the home to Jewish life. Underneath a large tablecloth from the New Hope Synagogue sits a table set for a family or group's Sabbath celebration. On a small screen, visitors can view recipe cards from "The Bake Shop," sweetly stained with use. The New Hope tablecloth...