Curator oversees sacred collection at Skokie museum
Illinois Holocaust Museum Chief Currator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger oversees a collection of 17,000 pieces and brings diverse traveling exhibitions to Skokie. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Workplace: Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Position: chief curator of collections and exhibitions
Number of collection pieces: 17,000
Number of pieces on display: 450-500.
Updated: August 20, 2012 11:16AM
SKOKIE — Visitors who tour the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s permanent exhibition see nearly 500 collection pieces from beginning to end.
What many may not know is that there are 17,000 pieces in the museum’s collection — many of them in storage but all of them sacred, all of them a contribution to making sure the world never forgets.
Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the museum, realizes the responsibility that goes with her job.
“To have and hold and care for a 17,000-piece collection that’s all very personal items that are all connected to the Holocaust is special,” she said. “Many of these items came from survivors’ children and they’re some of the most precious things they have.”
Weininger has been with the museum just over two years. In many ways, it’s been a homecoming of sorts.
She grew up in Wilmette walking distance from the location of the museum. She went to area schools and synagogues, her father is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery a short distance away, her mother volunteers at the museum.
“This is exactly where I grew up,” she said.
Her connection to the museum may have started in grade school before she even knew it. She was a student at Solomon Schechter Day School and heard her first Holocaust survivor speak — the late Lisa Derman. Derman helped create the foundation that produced the first Holocaust Museum on Main Street and now this institution.
Before coming to Skokie, Weininger worked at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies where she started off in education. Spertus, she noted, had the first permanent exhibition in the country that dealt with the Holocaust, and Holocaust education was part of her job.
She had background in Jewish art and art history, which helped her land the job, she said.
In fact, only four months after graduating from the University of Iowa, she had her job at Spertus. She also attended graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and studied Near and Middle Eastern Studies.
She wrote her dissertation on early Ottoman mosques in the Dobruja area of Romania.
But a degree in art history and photography doesn’t automatically point toward a career working in museum settings. Weininger, however, knew that this was the direction in which she wanted to head.
“When I went to Washington D.C. for the first time (at age 7) and saw the Smithsonian, it had a huge impression on me,” she said.
When Weininger was in college, museum studies programs were not as prevalent as they are today. There was no real way to focus study on working in a museum, but that was always the plan, she said.
Weininger oversees the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s precious collections, and she is also responsible for special exhibitions such as “Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America,” which opened just this week.
There are only three people in her department — not enough for the museum to self-generate exhibitions — so Weininger and her staff work with other institutions to bring traveling events to life.
The diverse subjects of these exhibitions and their different aesthetic components — all staged in the museum’s downstairs space — have created their own creative challenges, she said. The results have been remarkable in producing one interesting exhibition to the next.
But ask Weininger the best part of her job and she doesn’t hesitate.
“For me, a lot of the excitement comes from knowing the survivors that are here and the families of those who are deceased,” she said. “I see their excitement when their objects come into our collection or get displayed in our permanent exhibition.
To be able to continue to tell their story is really a huge honor.”