Open for Interpretation is an artist residency hosted by the National Museum of American Jewish History. Rather than create just one project for it, I brought every element of my practice to it.

I was invited in as “Creative-thinker-in-residence” by the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of their Open for Interpretation program. Every year, the residency brings in an artist or team to create new works inspired by an open-ended exploration of the Museum.

Rather than make one thing, I developed a multi-pronged series of installations & events that engaged Museum staff, visitors, and new audiences both inside the Museum and out.

The highlight of the residency was Faces of Migration, a migration-themed print & projection installation whose content was gathered through city-wide community portrait and story sessions.

I think that it is particularly telling about the Museum as an institution that they had no hesitation to not only welcome in a non-Jewish artist, but also to highlight portraits of people of all sorts of ethnic and religious backgrounds in the exhibit.

A series of other installations engaged viewers throughout the space, greeting them at the street-front windows, surprising them in the core exhibition, and drawing them into contemplation in hidden parts of the building.

The project culminated with a community celebration featuring the unveiling of the projection component, an artist talk, live music and my trademark lentil soup. All in all, it was a wonderful experience!

We had our all-time record single day attendance yesterday of more than 3000 people! I was not here but I’ve been downloading from colleagues including Ivy about what an incredible day it was an how meaningful it was to have your project in the Museum on this day that saw every age, ethnicity, intergenerational families – every type of visitor you could imagine. With a line out the door […] visitors were studying Faces of Migration – everyone could see themselves here.

– Emily August, Director of Public Programs @ NMAJH

Faces of Migration

Wanting to bring the residency project out into the city and draw connections between the Museum’s stories of migration and the many other ones that make up Philadelphia, I scheduled a series of community portrait & story gathering sessions across the city.

I invited participants to share stories from their own lives or in their family’s history, knowing that everyone has a migration story of some sort.

The resulting Faces of Migration installation was a wall of beautiful humanity accompanied by a book of stories, and a wonderful bringing together of many different facets of the city.

A Confession & An Invitation

I designed A Confession & An Invitation to engage pedestrians who might otherwise walk by.

Portraits of members of the Museum’s staff, docents & volunteers were accompanied by personal details & reflections to highlight what I found to be the Museum’s greatest asset: it’s community.

An enlarged handwritten letter offered a glimpse of my unexpected sense of connection to the Museum’s content as a non-Jewish person, and an invitation for passers-by to engage with the installations that I’d created within.

Letters to You/From You

Inspired by handwritten items in the Museum’s collections and by my own practice of sending handwritten notes, I created a series of letters to the museum viewers touching on themes in the Museum that resonated with me.

Some of the them were placed in prominent locations, while others were in often overlooked little nooks of the building. Informational placards directed viewers to discover the hidden letters, creating a treasure-hunt element to the installation.

Two letter-writing stations invited viewers to write their own letters, which they could either mail to someone special, photograph and send via email, or leave behind for the Museum.

Core Interventions

A series of images from my photographic archive were installed within the Museum’s core exhibition, with narrative text drawing connections between the historic content and modern day issues.

Themes addressed:

  • Borders
  • Education
  • Labor
  • Religion
  • Freedom
  • Activism

Screening & Celebration

The residency culminated with a celebration that brought together members of the Museum’s community and my own along with all of those that had participated in the Faces of Migration project.

An on-stage conversation between myself and Director of Public Programs Emily August touched on all of the facets of the residency and then opened up to community conversation.

The event marked the kickoff of the large scale projection component of the installation, and was accompanied by my trademark giant pot of lentil soup along with music by Joy Ike, one of the fabulous musicians who has played in my house concert series in the past.

Photo credits

Screening & celebration photos & core intervention photos by Matthew Christopher Photography for NMAJH  •  Faces of Migration installation photos by Alyssa Stuble for NMAJH  •  All other photographs © JJ Tiziou