‘Notorious RBG’ exhibit comes to Pennsylvania
National Museum of American Jewish History inspired by book of the same name
An exhibit featuring Marvel Comics closed last month at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, but the National Museum of American Jewish History, near Independence Hall, is following up with a superhero exhibit of its own.
That’s what Josh Perelman, NMAJH’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and interpretation, said of “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” which opened Oct. 4.
The exhibit was inspired by and based on the 2015 New York Times bestseller of the same name by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, which tells the life story of the first Jewish woman justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court. The exhibit’s East Coast debut will be on display through Jan. 12. The ticket price, $9, is a reference to Ginsburg’s famous response to the number of women on the Supreme Court that would be enough.
“For a museum that tells the story of the American Jewish experience, to focus on this particular individual feels like exactly the right person at exactly the right time,” Perelman said. “But just like we focus on American Jews as lenses into the larger history of this nation, by telling RBG’s story, we are also telling a larger story.”
Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, and was one of few female graduates in her class at Columbia Law, where she later became the school’s first female tenured professor. She broke ground litigating sex discrimination cases, including in front of the Supreme Court, as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, and helped to launch that organization’s Women’s Rights Project in 1973. She was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, and nominated for the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Ginsburg got her “Notorious RBG” nickname in 2013, after publishing a stream of passionate dissents pertaining to the Voting Rights Act. A New York University student, Shana Knizhnik, was inspired by Ginsburg’s legal actions, and created the “Notorious RBG” Tumblr blog, whose name referenced the rap star The Notorious B.I.G.
The Tumblr went viral, and Ginsburg went from understated feminist pathbreaker to full-throttle pop-culture icon, such that it’s not uncommon to see fans dress like her for Halloween. T-shirts, pins and refrigerator magnets bear her image, and she’s been featured on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — the host joined Ginsburg for her workout routine — and memorialized on Saturday Night Live in various sketches by comedian Kate McKinnon.
Eventually, Knizhnik, now an attorney, teamed up with journalist Irin Carmon, a senior correspondent at New York Magazine, to write the RBG book. The authors have gotten to know Ginsburg well; she presided over Carmon’s wedding in 2017 and Knizhnik’s wedding last month.
Last year, the “Notorious RBG” exhibit debuted at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court. The first-ever museum retrospective explores her legacy, as visitors follow Ginsburg’s journey from aspiring law student to lawyer and advocate for women’s rights to sitting on the nation’s highest court.
Both Carmon and Knizhnik worked on the exhibit, which serves as a physical exploration of their text.
“The goal has always been to bring Justice Ginsburg’s story to everyone, for people to be able to connect to her story and to be inspired themselves to work for a more equal and just society,” Knizhnik said. “That’s really what the ‘Notorious RBG’ blog, our book and now this amazing exhibition are all about, is both celebrating the growth of those values, celebrating the work of Justice Ginsburg and also trying to bring her work to a larger audience and really explaining those values in a way that everyone can access them.”
Visitors will find various historic heirlooms and photographs of Ginsburg along with displays highlighting her writings, opinions and interviews. Featured artifacts include Ginsburg’s Supreme Court robe, one of her iconic jabots and a dress she wore onstage at the Washington National Opera in 2017. Photos chronicling her early life are featured throughout the exhibit along with breakdowns of her famous dissents from the bench. There’s also an outfit worn by Felicity Jones when she portrayed Ginsburg in the 2018 biopic On the Basis of Sex.
Much of the exhibit is devoted to Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband of more than 50 years. Before he died in 2010, Martin Ginsburg wrote a letter to his wife from his hospital bed. His touching words are on display.
“The exhibition is really bringing the spirit and the content of the book to life. … Her life and her work are part of a broader history and a broader set of moments. So we’re really proud that the exhibition situates her in the context of that history,” Carmon said. “Justice Ginsburg thinks a lot about how to send a message to a future generation, that the constitution includes them, that the Supreme Court matters to them and it’s their Supreme Court, and capturing the spirit of that is so cool.” pjc