Beginning December 12th, Hannah Weisman will become the first full-time Executive Director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, bringing more than 20 years of experience in museum education and administration.
Weisman most recently served as the Director of Education at the Boston Athenæum, has worked extensively with large collections, and brings a deep understanding of the preservation, digitization, and interpretive needs of a collection such as The Magnes.
We sat down with Weisman and asked her to share a little bit about herself and her background as she takes the helm of one of the preeminent Jewish collections in the world.
The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
What led you to a career in museum leadership?
As an undergraduate student at Mount Holyoke College, I wrote an honors thesis on the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the legislation that allowed refugees from Europe to emigrate to the United States outside of the then-existing quota system. I spent a year digging into archival sources, conducting oral history interviews, and writing my paper. And at the end of that project, I felt like the research, the primary sources, and the historical argument were all meaningful. But I was interested in finding a way to make that kind of work accessible to people beyond academic institutions. And I landed on museums because, at their best, museums are democratic spaces for sparking and indulging curiosity, for both facilitated and self-directed learning, and for civil discourse.
One of the benefits of working in museum education, which is where I’ve spent most of my career, is that you have to have a global understanding of what is happening at the museum. You have to work internally with folks in facilities, security, visitor services, curatorial, development, etc., and you also have to listen to and work with your audiences to reach your goals. For me, building these skills created a natural path to leadership.
I’ve been privileged to have great role models along the way, as well as valuable training at the Cooperstown Graduate Program and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice to prepare me for this new role.
Why The Magnes?
The Magnes feels like the exact right place for me at the right time in my career. The scale of the museum and its relationship to the university appeal to me. It has an exceptional collection that represents the plurality of the Jewish experience, and it is a place of importance for both the campus community and the Jewish community of the Bay Area.
I grew up Jewish and have actively participated in Jewish life throughout my adult life. Coming to The Magnes feels like the perfect marriage of my professional skills and personal values and commitments.
What aspect of The Magnes are you most looking forward to diving into?
I’m very much looking forward to getting to know the museum’s multiple communities and working with them to make sure The Magnes is meeting their needs. I’d love to see The Magnes be a place where people from all of those communities can come together and feel comfortable in the same space at the same time. The museum’s collections have countless stories to tell and conversations to spark around universal themes of otherness and belonging, migration, family and community, and more. I’m excited to build on the great work that the team has already done to bring even more people in and create even more collections-based discussions about ideas and questions that we all grapple with. And of course I’m also looking forward to finding ways to celebrate culture, accomplishments, and milestones with The Magnes’s communities.
With the impressive experience you bring to The Magnes, what past project are you most proud of?
At Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, I spearheaded a complete overhaul of the museum’s field trip model. I worked with museum educators and regional teachers to devise Passport to Learning. We created a series of twelve concurrent mini workshops across the museum’s 35-acre campus. Each hands-on workshop connected students with museum collections and aligned with statewide educational standards. Students could complete as few or as many workshops as they wanted during their visit and received a stamp in their passport each time they finished one. This program meant that 80% of student visitors to the museum had a facilitated experience that helped them reach learning goals for the year.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
The list is so long! Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director and Distinguished Professor at the Cooperstown Graduate Program and my graduate advisor, has been an incredible mentor to me throughout my career. She teaches emerging museum professionals to approach their work through community collaboration and with a focus on understanding and meeting audience needs. Gretchen has always taught that inclusivity and equity are central to museums’ relevance, mission, and success.
I also had the great fortune of having mentors as a teen, who in many ways are directly responsible for me landing at The Magnes now. Cantor Jerrold Held from Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, and Carl Freitag, an elder from the same shul who tutored me, both saw potential in me and pushed me to deepen my Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life. I learned not only facts and technical skills from them, but also how to teach in a Jewish setting, how to connect with learners, and how to be tough and compassionate at the same time. I am sorry neither of them is alive now—I have been thinking about them a lot over the last few months! I am sure they would both give very wise counsel as I take on this new role (and also be proud).
What are you most looking forward to with your move to the Bay Area?
I am excited to get to know another part of the country and build community in a new place. My husband Mike Peluse and I have never lived in California before. We are eager to participate in arts and cultural activities in the Bay Area. And we’re looking forward to getting outside to walk and hike with our dog, Molly. We’re always happy for recommendations!
What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?