Week 26: Sixth and I Historic Synagogue


Last night, I visited Sixth and I Historic Synaogogue; I was reassured by a friend that this should count as a museum visit because it “is both a historic house (of worship) and a present-day arts venue.”  I suspected as much from reading the website, but I just wanted to hear, from someone familiar with the site, that I wouldn’t be cutting any corners by using it as a Weekly Museum Visit.

I went for a specific event, with a specific group, and I didn’t have a chance to see any part of the building besides the sanctuary, nor did I take a tour or anything like that.  It was a rather non-traditional museum visit, but it was also an opportunity to experience both the space and an example of the community programming it offers (in this case, the documentary 9500 Liberty, followed by a question-and-answer period with the filmmakers).

I did not read wall text or hear a docent tell me about the domed ceiling, for example.  However, I read about it online, and then I sat under it in person for two hours.

Dome at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

Of course, not every house of worship or spiritual gathering is a museum.  (The building I go to on Sunday mornings is most definitely not a museum.)  What makes some museums?  While considering this question, I took a break from reading mission statements and decided to ask Googlism instead.

Googlism allows you to type in a word, name, or phrase (for example, “Duncan”), and then it returns results from the Internet that begin with “Duncan is.”  The searcher doesn’t know where these results came from, or who made the statements listed, or whether they are true or widely agreed upon.

Googlism tells me, “sixth and i historic synagogue is hosting the exhibit “soul cages” for fotoweek dc.”  It is also “very extravagant” and “quickly becoming one of dc’s premier locations for music.”  Like many other museums, it exhibits art, serves as a fancy historic building, and hosts public events such as concerts.  These attributes are not the definition of museum, but they are functions a number of museums serve.

What about Washington National Cathedral?  I have visited five times, most recently a few days ago for a labyrinth walk.  I have visited the Cathedral’s exhibits, including an exhibit about the building of the Cathedral itself, as well as the creche exhibit.  I’ve perused the educational materials, such as the self-guided tour of the gargoyles.

From an exhibit at Washington National Cathedral

Regarding the Cathedral, Googlism suggests it lives in people’s minds primarily as an area attraction: it is both “a popular site for visitors” and “a hidden gem and a must see.”  It is “a grand and inspiring building” “adorned with beautiful carvings,” and it is “america’s most unique place of worship and an architectural phenomenon.”

The other place where I’ve seen creche exhibits is the Visitors Center to the Mormon Temple in Kensington, MD.  Here I have also seen exhibits about the faith, Christmas light displays, and a musical performance.  Googlism provided no results for several variations of the site’s name, and one single result in the form of “washington dc mormon temple is one of the most popular in the area and draws visitors from around the region.”  As with the National Cathedral, the Temple is considered a place that draws visitors.  It is not clear whether the visitors are drawn to services themselves or to the visitors center or both.

The Three Wise Men from one creche at the LDS Temple, with another Nativity scene made of shells behind it

In California, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa serves not only as a house of worship but also as a local history and archaeology museum.  In addition to the sanctuary and gardens, there are Native American artifacts on display and examples of objects from pioneer life in the area.

Googlism tells us that the Mission is everything from “a fun place to explore” to “a eucharistic community striving to live out the gospel of jesus christ guided by the power of the holy spirit.”  Also, it is “an important factor in the life of the city of san luis obispo.”

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, as seen reflected in an ornament on the church's outdoor Christmas tree

Another museum from my Weekly Museum Visits project was the Meditation Museum located in Silver Spring, MD.  Unlike the other sites here, it is by no means known for having a pretty building; it is also the only one to have “museum” in its name.  But it is also religiously affiliated.  The Meditation Museum features exhibit space and a meditation room, and is run by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organization.  Googlism does not tell us much about the Meditation Museum, other than its address, its Facebook presence, and the fact that it is “interested.”

Exhibit at the Meditation Museum

So, then, what is a museum, according to Googlism?  A museum is, among other things:

  • somewhere that collects
  • where you can go see things of historical significance
  • much more than its objects
  • interesting and even fun

While many museums are not houses of worship, and many houses of worship are not museums, there exist sites that are both.  Perhaps, due to their dual purpose, they are the museums that are among the most apparent in being “much more than [their] objects.”

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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