National Museum of American Jewish History comprised of multiple interlocking volumes

Prominent elected officials, community leaders, noted performers and thousands of supporters recently gathered on Independence Mall to celebrate the Grand Opening of the new $150m National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), with Vice President Joseph Biden giving the keynote address.

The NMAJH, a Smithsonian Affiliate, relocated from the 15,000 sq ft building it had occupied since its opening in 1976 to its new 100,000 sq ft, five storey building on Independence Mall at the corner of Fifth and Market Streets. Designed by architect James Polshek of Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), the NMAJH is the only major museum dedicated solely to telling the story of Jews in America.

The site's prominence demanded an architectural response iconographically appropriate to the historic city fabric as well as publicly expressive of the Museum's mission. Interlocking volumes - one opaque and enigmatic and the other translucent and open - characterise the design concept. The visual accessibility of the glass volume on the Mall conveys a generous welcome to people of all ethnicities and religions.

The contrasting opaque terracotta structure contains the principal exhibition spaces. Its solidity is a metaphor for the strength of Jewish survival and the protection of the freedoms that are fundamental to American history. The warm tones of this masonry enclosure complement the adjacent Bourse as well as the brick structures in Philadelphia's historic core.

Merging the glass and masonry volumes, the interior is arranged on six levels, featuring four floors of interactive exhibition space, a changing exhibit gallery, a 200-seat auditorium and education center. An eighty-five-foot-high, light-filled atrium creates a dramatic spatial connection throughout the Museum, allowing the visitor to readily comprehend the organization of the Museum from any point.

The sculptures Religious Liberty (1876) and Beacon (2010) are integral to the architectural concept. The carefully restored 19th century Religious Liberty contrasts dramatically with the minimal glass veil of the façade to suggest the connection between the past and future of the Jewish community in America. The LED sculpture Beacon by acclaimed media artist Ben Rubin is located in the uppermost corner of the glass façade; its undulating panels appear as pages in a book, inspired by the Talmud, one of the central texts of Judaism.

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