By Rudy Malcom
Karen Falk conducts interviews, collects photographs and finds ephemera, or written and printed items like letters and newspaper clippings that were originally meant to exist for only a short time. She is doing all this as part of a team curating an exhibition on the Jewish history of Columbia.
“We began by speaking with those who were involved in founding the community,” she said, “and then we started collecting objects and images that will visualize the experience of building something new.”
According to Falk, Columbia’s Jewish community has been present since the city was founded in 1967, which “isn’t the kind of thing that usually happens” in the U.S., she said. Indeed, urban developer Jim Rouse’s egalitarian and interfaith vision for the city relied on support from Jews.
Since retiring in 2017 as curator of exhibitions at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Falk, 68, has been working on freelance projects like the Columbia one.
Before joining the Jewish Museum in 2007, she was gallery director of the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville for more than a decade.
For Falk, curating is an archival and anthropological endeavor that’s “all about the small stuff.”
“If you don’t look at everything you can look at, you can’t know what you missed, and it’s easy to miss the best stuff — the best images and quotations that tell you the best story,” she said.
Falk first joined the Jewish museum world in the 1970s while earning master’s degrees in anthropology and museum studies at the University of Denver.
“At that point in time, it was really common for people to think of museums as stodgy places. I certainly felt that way before,” she said. “Then I began to learn about the kinds of exciting things that museums were doing.”
Falk observes that in the ’70s, there was a push among museums to engage and listen to audiences more.
Visitors bring their own knowledge and perspectives to the combinations of images, objects and interpretation they encounter in museums, she said.
“Those of us who work in museums have come to realize that the audience brings as much to the exhibitions as the ‘experts’ have brought to the making of them,” she said. “Museums are a very powerful medium for communication.”
At the Jewish Museum, she found it especially powerful to solicit “first-person input from the audience.”
Nearly 20 years ago, she and her team were trained by a folklorist to conduct oral histories. Falk, along with museum staff and volunteers, interviewed 80 Jews across the state for the 2002 exhibition “We Call This Place Home: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns.”
Falk emphasized that museums play a special role in Jewish life.
“The Jewish community has lots of stories that it wants to tell about itself, for lots of reasons. There’s pride, and there’s the need to explain yourself to others,” she said. “Jews have an interest in learning more about other Jewish communities and all things Jewish — how things not Jewish can be related to being Jewish. There’s a Jewish context for everything.”
For example, not all things Jews eat are innately Jewish — think Chinese food on Christmas. In 2011, Falk curated the exhibition “Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity,” which in part examined the diversity of Jewish eating.
This sort of diversity is something that can be difficult to capture.
“Anybody who’s Jewish knows there’s no one way to show what Judaism is,” she said. “It’s very different things for different people, and that’s such a difficult problem.”
However, Falk believes that Jewish museums have gotten better at solving this problem over the past 20 years or so.
After residing in Potomac for more than 30 years, she and her husband moved last October to Rockville’s Aspen Hill community, where they now live with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. The family belongs to Kehilat Pardes, an Orthodox shul housed in the Berman Hebrew Academy.
“The most exciting part of all of the jobs that I’ve had was this opportunity to learn something new and to challenge myself,” she said. “I’m still learning, and I still have so many opportunities to continue doing that. It’s really very exciting.”