Jewish Museum in Philly Faces Cuts. How Can NMAJH Rebound?

The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) is feeling a pinch after several years of lackluster fundraising and growing costs.

The museum – inaugurated in 2010 and housed in a $150 million building on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall – is cutting 36 percent of its staff. Twelve of these positions were eliminated outright, with an additional six to be cut in the coming months. Other services inside the institution are being cut, curtailed, or consolidated. The museum will shutter its cafe and redistribute staff to take care of other responsibilities, and will begin closing on Tuesdays.

Ivy Barsky, the museum’s chief executive, discussed the cuts: “We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions, but it’s in order to sustain a bright future for the museum.”

These are tough days for institutions that celebrate, document, and/or preserve Jewish experience and history. The Trump Administration has suggested a staggering $3 million cut to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s federal funding, which makes up 5 percent of the institution’s overall budget.

In response, more than 60 members of congress have drafted a bipartisan letter decrying the move, which reads in part:

In our view, the mission of the museum has never been more important, particularly as the number of anti-Semitic attacks around the world rises.

Anti-Semitic attacks have grown in number since the emergence of the bigoted, online alt-right movement that works to indoctrinate internet users into hate ideologies. A number of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated over the past 6 months, including one in Philadelphia, home to the NMAJH.

This sad social reality only underscores how essential these institutions are for cementing equality for historically marginalized groups.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, fortunately, probably won’t endure the proposed cut. There is some simple math at work here: with Trump’s disapproval ratings reaching historic highs, his more unpopular proposals that make fellow Republicans bristle probably won’t progress much further. As the strongly worded bipartisan letter from congress indicates, the proposal to cut funding to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is unlikely to go anywhere.

But for NMAJH, life is more difficult. On paper, the museum seems to do well; it has a membership base of 6,000 and a retention rate of around 90 percent, which is higher than many other institutions. The museum also enjoys a spot on one of the most celebrated stretches of museums and historical buildings in the United States. Nonetheless, financial problems persist.

So how can it emerge from its financial troubles? NMAJH’s leadership will have to make some hard choices. The museum, for example, may consider rebranding. Visitors of described the title as long and ungainly. Others view it as a museum for Jewish people as opposed a museum about and celebrating Jewish people.

Renewed online efforts are also likely in order. In this day and age, nonprofits need to function like media companies. By building relationships with its constituents online, NMAJA could grow its already solid membership numbers or stand out in a crowded field of Philadelphia-based historical and cultural institutions.

It may also be time to think outside the box. A number of institutions are experimenting with virtual reality. Such immersive exhibits could position the NMAJH as a next-gen cultural institution and elevate its profile.

Rebounding from financial difficulties is a struggle many nonprofits face. But if an institution’s mission is vital – which NMAJH’s most certainly is – it’s worth looking forward to a better future, so long as there is an elevated commitment from stakeholder groups (on both the local and national levels) and a strong willingness to persevere.

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