Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal uncovers a forgotten past

Many exhibits are supplemented with archival photographs of Montreal’s Jewish heritage

The Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal (IMJM) was conceived in the summer of 2009 when Zev Moses gazed out the window of his Plateau apartment at a curious ark-like structure. The awkwardly renovated apartment building looked like a synagogue, but a Google search turned up no results. He discovered later that it was indeed the former Beth Yehuda synagogue. Realizing there were hundreds of other locations around the city whose Jewish stories were disappearing, the idea for IMJM was born.

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exhibits featured in the IMJM

The seed money came in 2010 from the Jewish Community Foundation’s Connecting Through Culture grant. With the startup funds, Moses and a team of student researchers plowed through the city’s Jewish archives and history books, mapping thousands of locations and creating about 150 exhibits. IMJM has also begun collecting oral histories.

The city is our museum

“We’re doing something novel at IMJM – we’re building a museum from the outside in,” says Moses, now the museum’s director. While their work began with web (and now mobile) content they are gradually shifting towards walking tours on the street, in the same way New York’s Tenement Museum gives tours of the Lower East Side. “Eventually, we see ourselves as a storefront museum, where visitors spend most of the time outdoors with tour guides and on their mobile devices.”

“This is much more affordable and sustainable way of running a museum. The streets are free!” says Moses. Being web-powered also allows IMJM to collect user-generated content from the community, in the form of oral histories and photos. Anyone with a mobile phone can stand on a street corner, plug in their headphones, and experience the history of the neighbourhood through the stories of its former inhabitants.

“Hearing or watching the story where it occurred creates a sense of place and reestablishes our close connection to this city.” You can try this for yourself with “Between These Walls,” IMJM’s first mobile tour, about cantors and hazzanut traditions in the Plateau and Mile End. It features rare recordings that give a glimpse into what these synagogues sounded like 50 or 60 years ago.

Jewish stories beyond the map

IMJM is growing exponentially. It’s no longer just about a map. Last year, Dr. Stephanie Schwartz, a recent University of Ottawa graduate, was hired as research director. She has taken a central role in building IMJM’s Stories Project. On May 12th, IMJM and the Jewish Public Library Archives will also launch reCOLLECTION, a citywide scavenger hunt of Montreal’s Jewish past.  “We’re making a concerted effort to have young people lead this work, to collect the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, and to take ownership of their history.”

For more information, visit imjm.ca. or follow IMJM on Facebook.

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