From the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society: photograph of a kosher delicatessen.


Jennifer Gilmore says:

I'm a novelist who writes often about history, and in my research I have always found that photos do something a text cannot: they let me feel the past. They give me a sense of a time and place. In a way, the Jewish delicatessen is timeless. But it is also a frozen moment of a time when neighborhoods were separated by ethnicity. And what more than food reveals cultural identity? This image, now ubiquitous, tells the story of an urban Jewish neighborhood like the one I set part of my first novel in.

So many photos like this one, with its minute and infinite details, were my ticket in to a faraway narrative. I could create a whole story about what is happening in that deli or on the street in front of it. (Who is Rabbi Karnowitz? I would have to know!)

This photo is really a novel in disguise.

Annie Polland--photo response

I am intrigued by the store, and I try to imagine its place in the everyday life of its owners, workers and customers. What would it be like to stand in the street and peer inside? What would it be like to stand within the store and look out the window? To transform this photo into a public history exhibit, I'd create an immersive space that would allow visitors to soak up the atmosphere and to craft their own questions merely by standing in the space.

Ever since wandering through "The Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum as a child, I've been inspired by the sense of wonder and curiosity immersive spaces inspire. The exhibit recreates a block of turn-of-the-twentieth-century homes and businesses, enfolding the visitor into the excitement of exploration and, perhaps more broadly, into an understanding that history can be about everyday life. The experience is powerful and transporting: The cobblestones underfoot make one reconsider something as basic as walking and the wood-plank sidewalks steady one's gait, enabling one to peer into the windows of photography studios, candy stores and saloons, each with its own diorama-like interior.

As a historian looking back, I realize that the magical effect of that exhibit owes its power and reach to painstaking research. Rigorous research is essential to any public history exhibit; it forms the basis for the "set" and the storytelling that immerses the visitors in a time period, and it sparks their questions and curiosity. Public history is not about guesswork; the role of the public historian is to conduct solid research into the...

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