Working Together, Playing Together

Brooking Paper on Creativity Honorable Mention (2011)

By Melissa J. Martens

An empty gallery. A tight budget. A creative team willing to experiment and the mysterious tile game of “a thousand wonders.” These were the ingredients that led to the unlikely project that brought our staff closer together, shaped our institutional culture, and made us rethink the ways we relate to audiences and each other through exhibitions.

As we made plans for our 2010 calendar, the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was facing the same tough realities as most museums: a challenging economy, cut-backs in production expenses and wavering confidence in the possible. Our core functions and narratives remained intact and were the most essential to maintain. Yet new and different initiatives seemed a bit of a long shot.

In times of restraint, we decided to dedicate one of our galleries to public program functions for 2010. The Rotunda Gallery—our smallest public space at 900 square feet—was one of the most beautiful spaces in the museum. With its hexagonal shape, intimate scale and warm glow from a skylight, it allowed for focused viewing, contemplation and visitor exploration.

It was a perfect space for convening and conversing, and quickly became a favorite spot of our public programs staff. They scheduled it for book talks, lectures and discussion-driven events and were in no hurry to have it filled with exhibitions again.

Between programs, the empty gallery provided a resting place for visitors. One of our docents remarked that it was her favorite place in the museum to conclude a tour, as it allowed space for visitors to reflect and share. Some visitors wandered into the space instinctively and used it as a blank canvas for their own storytelling. In other words, the empty gallery allowed the visitor to be at the center of the experience, and the visitor had a lot to contribute.

From these new activities we realized something very valuable—that one of our biggest opportunities lay in our smallest public space. And that personal memories and conversation could present substantial opportunity at low cost. I wondered what could be exhibited there that would still keep visitors at the heart of the experience, and I recalled one of the most beloved and unexplored topics in Jewish-American memory: mah jongg. This Chinese game with its mysterious tiles and rituals had somehow grabbed hold of the Jewish American imagination in the 20th century and was ripe for exploration. There was no secondary scholarship on the topic, and no museum had treated the game’s history or meanings. But in a tight economic year, was it really time to roll the dice on a topic that seemed a bit of a stretch for us?

Serving as New York’s primary center for Holocaust education and memorialization, our exhibitions often deal with Holocaust topics. Yet within the broader rubric of “Jewish heritage,” we have also explored Jewish life before and after the Holocaust, and the continuing vibrancy of Jewish culture—especially through our public programs.

Seeing the opportunities in a topic like mah jongg (one part exhibition, one part live program and a likely attract for new visitors), the museum’s leadership vetted the idea at the staff and board levels. Reactions ranged from disbelief to delight, and conversations sprouted up across the museum about mission and audience. After deliberations and debates with various stakeholders, we decided to take a chance on mah jongg. The tough economy might have dictated otherwise, but perhaps it made us even more eager to try an experiment. We were nervous but excited, and the momentum of something new pushed our productivity forward. Total timeline for the project: January–May 2010. Budget: bare bones, or whatever we could raise from new sources that would not compete with other initiatives.

As I surveyed the back story of mah jongg through primary sources, the ads, imagery and commentary revealed a game that was filled with theatrical performance and sociability. The clacking tiles, gossip, entertainment rituals, and exclamations of “crak,” bam” and “dot” simulated encounters across time and cultures. Newspaper articles from the 1920s described the relatively simple act of playing mah jongg as a veritable portal onto other worlds: “All is lost in a new poppy dream of green, red and silver dragons, birds hovering over bamboo rushes, mandarins in imposing-looking gray robes, piquant Chinese maidens in the midst of flower gardens, mystic winds blowing where they list laden with riches and the other gains and delights of the slippery, sleepless game of mah jongg. . . . It transports one from every-day affairs into the strange East, with its mystery and traditions of centuries,” said one Washington Post writer in 1923.

We had at our disposal not only an intriguing body of material culture and primary source commentary and imagery, but a topic that was—in its essence—about people performing identity and memory over a game table. The topic was a natural for our Rotunda Gallery—intimate in scale, yet dramatic and suggestive in its shape. With just the right bit of mood, materials and magic, we hoped to create a stage set that could illuminate both the history and living meanings of mah jongg through exhibition techniques.

Every designer we interviewed for the project understood both the challenges and rewards. The beauty of the tiles, the materials of the game sets, the Chinese and Jewish cultural influences, the sensory aspects of the game and the potential for live games in the gallery proved irresistible ingredients—even given a limited budget and timeline. With each new exploratory meeting, the topic attracted new talent and ideas into our circle.

We found our designer in Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who came prepared with suggestions to broaden the impact of the exhibition: to make it as travel-ready as a portable mah jongg set, to build it from unusual and light materials, and to let the simplicity of the mah jongg motifs (winds, bams, craks, dots and dragons) create powerful effect with streamlined graphics and strong colors. Miller was inspired to create an exhibition design that would be “one part Chinese, one part synagogue modern.”

Beyond the exhibition’s design, Miller presented us with another opportunity. The arts journal 2wice—for which he was the designer—was currently deciding upon a theme for its upcoming issue. Might we want to contribute substantial content for a mah jongg issue? The serial (printed twice per year) would benefit from the museum’s research, and the museum would gain a full-color publication that would function as exhibition catalogue. The issue would also include mah jongg-themed illustrations by artists affiliated with the journal, including Maira Kalman, Bruce McCall, Christoph Niemann and Isaac Mizrahi. The same images would be made available for the exhibition and for merchandising in our shop. We had a tremendous opportunity to stretch our impact with new creative talent and resource sharing.

Twelve weeks until publication. Our newspaper research was yielding a wealth of new information on the mah jongg crazes of the 1920s, ’30s and post-war era. 2wice would hold the first published history article on the game of mah jongg in Jewish-American life. Our essay would only be a first chapter, but it would explain the arrival of the game, tackle cultural stereotypes, and show how Jewish American women of both German and Eastern European descent became likely groups to adopt mah jongg for fun and philanthropy.

Another good fortune became clear through the research: mah jongg was the perfect vehicle for fundraising. With all of the game’s associations with revelry and gambling, women learned to apply their gaming habit to good causes. When the National Mah Jongg League formed in 1937, its officers quickly realized the philanthropic potential and declared a secondary charitable purpose. Since its American introduction, mah jongg was used to support temple sisterhoods, auxiliaries, aid organizations, hospitals and other nonprofit causes. We had, by happenstance, found a self-sustaining exhibition topic in which fundraising was part of the activity itself.

What had started as a simple plan to place a game table in the center of the gallery near a few display cases had turned into a multi-faceted project. We were both delighted and overwhelmed by the challenges: fulfilling a creative design scheme, publishing new scholarship, creating custom merchandise for our shop, developing new relationships with funders and the media, and forming new partnerships with community groups—Jewish and Chinese. We partnered with the Museum of Chinese in America for advice and programming, and brought on sound designer Timothy Nohe to create a soundscape of recorded music and memories for the gallery.

We realized the project wasn’t just addressing a mah jongg of the past but framing a social phenomenon on the rise. With some 400,000 known mah jongg players in America (as per statistics from National Mah Jongg League membership rosters), we were helping to shape the image and trajectory of a beloved pastime. In essence, the museum was serving as the nerve center for all things mah jongg.

Little did we know that the mah jongg world was a tightly organized community of players far and wide, and that each bit of breaking news spread like wildfire. Our pre-opening press releases hit the mah jongg circuits, and memories and photographs poured into our e-mail boxes to help inform the first American exhibition on mah jongg. We set up systems to catalogue incoming images and quotations, sent permission forms, and created a website to highlight the most exciting and representative contributions. Some images eventually became signature icons for the project and found distribution to a worldwide audience.

We mined the sensory aspects of the game for purposes programmatic, photographic and unknown. We worked with chocolatiers and caterers to recreate historic recipes for mah jongg-shaped confections. Boldly, we visited the biggest weekly mah jongg game in New York City (despite our lack of skill). We created custom fortune cookies with mah jongg messages to be sold in the shop. A local “mixologist” reinvented the mah jongg cocktail for our events. National retailers, artisans and collectors of mah jongg sets came forward to help. We had become the mah jongg clearing house.

One obstacle remained: Almost no one on staff knew how to play mah jongg. Our deputy director, who knew a few things about mah jongg, took charge of the situation. Over lunch hours, she trained some 30 staff members to play the game. We worked through the rituals of the game gradually: the shuffling of the tiles, the naming of the suits, the building of the walls, and the proclamations of “two crak,” “one bam,” “nine dot” and “mah jongg!” We invited our docents to join us and to bring along their friends—or even their sets for display consideration.

New sides of personalities came out—regional accents, attitudes and mannerisms poured out over the game table (paralleling the identity performances described in historic newspaper articles.) The dynamics of the game (part skill, part luck) recalibrated the social environment of the museum. Roles throughout the museum flip-flopped. Some staff members proved to be teachers, some were competitive, some almost gave up—but we kept coming together.

In playing together, we realized just how entrenched we had become in our daily routines. Even though the staff was already quite friendly, daily pressures and work tasks had kept us at our desks. Yet staff members from departments all around the museum came out of the woodwork to learn mah jongg, including those from communications, collections and exhibitions, development, executive, education and finance. Some people who had never even spoken before got to know each other within the mind-space of mah jongg. Staff members began to get together outside of the workplace—forming an Upper East Side group, an Upper West Side group and a Brooklyn contingent. Some bought their own mah jongg sets and taught their families how to play at home. We were forming a habit, riding a trend and becoming part of a Jewish American tradition.

Learning mah jongg together had given us a new, productive pastime that better enabled us to talk to collectors and donors, explain the game to the press, and ultimately play with our visitors in the gallery and in the community.

By the time “Project Mah Jongg” opened to the public in May 2010, there was a hum of creativity and collegiality in the air. We had forged new partnerships with designers, museums, collectors, patrons, artists, bakers and bartenders. We had published new research findings that inspired our colleagues, students and reporters. We had tried on a new kind of topic, and attracted new audiences to the museum who may never have visited otherwise—from Long Island to Florida, from Israel to China.

The resulting exhibition proved to be the gorgeous learning lab we had envisioned. A beautifully designed system of giant, interlocking mah jongg tiles provides a structural latticework for the exhibition—holding object cases and text, and framing the action at the core of the gallery. The peripheral walls of the hexagonal room display large-format historic images juxtaposed with contemporary illustrations. Visitor-activated CD players echo the sounds of mah jongg games across time, place, cultures and age groups.

Of course, a gallery that is visitor-centric is not one that is always in our control. And while that can be a challenge, it is more often a pleasure. We’ve heard that a few visitors have consumed tea sandwiches while at the gallery table, and others have attempted to rearrange the exhibit furniture to their own liking. We step in to adjust expectations (and furnishings) as needed, and usually wind up playing a round of “maahj” with the very offenders.

Many visitors come to the exhibition in groups of four, ready to play. Other visitors meet each other in the gallery, become friendly and decide to play a round. Different game styles, traditions and “table rules” are negotiated at the table. Regional differences—Florida vs. New York, Chinese vs. American, neighborhood to neighborhood—come up for discussion. Somehow, all find a way to play together.

While some visitors read every word of text, look at every object and activate every sound player in the gallery, others come only to play—and they become the display itself. The exhibition serves as a performance space, of sorts, though the games played there are absolutely authentic.

One of the biggest changes in our institutional culture was that staff members with jobs far removed from the gallery began to frequent the space, talk and play with visitors, and learn a lot about our audiences in the process. With an unlikely exhibit topic in tough times, we found a new way to be a museum about peoplehood and culture.

As I left the museum the other night, a group of staff members were looking for an extra person to play a round after hours. The lighting system in the gallery had shut down for the night, and we played under the skylight as just a bit of outdoor light remained. The visitors were long gone, the cleaning staff came through, a security guard wandered by, and we played until it was too dark to see the tiles and it was time to go home.

As “Project Mah Jongg” concludes its run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and gets ready for its national tour (to museums small and large), we now see many more possibilities in our smallest gallery, our staff and our audiences. While the exhibition itself only covered some 900 square feet of territory, the “game of a thousand wonders” covered much more.

Melissa J. Martens is senior curator for exhibitions, Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York.