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What with teaching and writing, fussin’ and frettin,’ I haven’t had much time of late to step back from my daily pursuits and contemplate what I’m up to -- and why. Thankfully, there are conferences for that. Interrupting one’s daily routine, they provide an opportunity to take stock and, if the conversation and the wine flow freely enough, to recharge as well.

Zurbarán Asher Frick
Francisco de Zurbarán. "Asher," c. 1640–45. Oil on canvas. The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust. Photo credit: Robert Robert LaPrelle

And so it was at last week’s annual CAJM conference at which a hundred-plus of my colleagues gathered together in Washington, D.C., to talk shop, stare down and confront the mighty forces arrayed against the values we hold dear and cheer one another onward and upward.

Shuttling among Sixth and I, the Wilson Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with stops along the way at the Museum of the Bible and the National Museum of the American Indian Museum, conference participants, who came from hither and yon, were exposed directly to D.C.’s unparalleled and varied panoply of cultural institutions.

We also learned about collection strategies in a session that turned out, at least for me, to be unexpectedly moving as curators spoke of racing against the clock to secure artifacts before it is too late and of caring for “injured objects.” Other sessions attended to the exigencies of cultural preservation in the war-ravaged Middle East, the challenges of mounting exhibitions on dark and difficult themes and the ways in which Jewish cultural institutions might find a place for themselves within the civic square. No easy answers were to be had at CAJM, but it wasn’t for want of trying again and again: an exhausting but ultimately energizing exercise.

Having slept the entire way home to New York, I was primed the next morning to visit the Frick Collection where Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons,” an exhibition of 13 life-size portraits of the biblical family are on display. A tour de force, it’s a must-see.

Dazzling and delighting the eye -- I couldn’t take mine off Zurbarán’s depiction of the gorgeously-clad Asher, who holds in his hand a basket of rolls -- the exhibition also unexpectedly brings to the fore a number of key themes in Jewish history, from the identification of the New World’s indigenous populations with the Ten Lost Tribes to the rancor and hostility that accompanied the passage of the Jew Bill in 18th century England. Zurbarán and the Jewish question: Who knew?!

Now I do, and for that, and for CAJM’s expressions of collegiality, I’m grateful -- and re-energized.

Over spring break, my students headed south to frolic in the surf while I lit out for the west coast to attend a conference.

A museum buzz phrase, 'in conversation.' Flickr/Sean MacEntee

Organized by the Council of American Jewish Museums, a.k.a. ‘CAJM,’ the three-day confab attended to the many issues -- audience cultivation, career development, technology and more technology -- that keep those of us who either work in museums or train others to do so awake in the middle of the night.

I learned a lot: about the limits of technology, the cultivation of fun, the mechanics of the ‘participatory museum’ and the importance of developing a staff that is “undeterred.” (I took a real shine to that one.) But what struck me with particular force was not substance so much as language. No matter the context, certain phrases circulated like mad, giving new meaning to “buzzword.”

‘Thinking holistically’ was one crowd pleaser; another was ‘meaningful.’ A third was ‘mission forward,’ and a fourth, the hands-down winner, was ‘in conversation.’

Everyone and everything was ‘in conversation.’ Museums and their audiences were ‘in conversation.’ Technology and content were ‘in conversation.’ Objects on display were ‘in conversation’ with one another and with the viewer. Supplanting ‘dialogue’ as the word du jour, ‘in conversation’ didn’t just happen along. It’s of its time, a reflection of the increasing value that many of us place on lively, active exchange -- the kind of exchange that goes beyond tapping and texting. ‘In conversation,’ it seems to me, highlights the value of community.

My students returned home from their spring break with a tan. I returned home from mine with a new vocabulary.

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