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Thirty years ago, Larry Mizel, his wife Carol, and rabbi Stanley Wagner had the idea to start a Jewish museum in Colorado. That one-room, synagogue-housed space eventually turned into the Mizel Museum, a nationally regarded “portal to the contemporary Jewish experience.” Exhibits like 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks (a permanent show that opened in February) exemplify the museum’s inspired efforts to promote interfaith awareness and tolerance. I spoke with executive director Ellen Premack about the anniversary and the impact the museum has had on Denver.
Thirty years is a big deal. What does this milestone mean to you?
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When I think of a 30-year anniversary, I’m not just looking at all the good things that the museum has done over the years—the exhibits, the programs, the beautiful celebrations—but the idea that we have the ability to change one person’s life story by story and school by school. From a personal perspective, teaching the larger community about culture and connecting and the importance of people knowing who each other are has been a highlight.
Although it was founded as a Jewish museum, the focus seems to have shifted to tolerance and multiculturalism. Was that done on purpose?
In 1982, when the museum was founded, its mission was to speak of the Jewish culture. But in 1993, it was very intentional to develop the Bridges of Understanding program so that we could open ourselves to the larger community and, specifically, anyone who was Native American, Hispanic, African-American—any other background—could come into the museum and see themselves in the programming and exhibitions that we do. We want to do things in a multicultural context through the arts.
What should visitors expect?
When people come to the Mizel Museum they see this beautiful exhibit [Gathering Sparks] that has about 16 or 17 thematic components and each one of them is very deliberate. It can teach you in so many ways not just about Jewish culture but to see yourself in it and to figure out your story and your background and come out of it learning about another people but with you reflected within it. And I hope they have fun here.
Does the Mizel Museum reflect the city of Denver and its specific Jewish population?
When we first started, I would say that we were what you would expect from a typical Jewish museum that you would see in any city in the United States: We had the pretty menorah exhibit. But we’ve reinvented ourselves through the years so that we continue to become current and tell our story in a different way. Right now, the exhibition has shifted how we teach multiculturalism. It’s also shifted to reflect a more global presence while at the same time sticking with local information and putting the information we have within a national scope and context.
How has the local Jewish community changed since the 1980s?
It’s much more hip, more cool and modern than it was 30 years ago. It’s rolling and changing with the rest of culture because it needs to so that it doesn’t become outdated. It needs to appeal to all generations, including our young community.
On the calendar: The museum’s annual dinner—honoring businessman Glenn R. Jones with the community enrichment award—takes place on May 23 at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum. Register here.
—Image courtesy of Paul Brokering