Sara Berman’s Closet: Monument to Freedom and Independence

April 5, 2019

NMAJH’s new exhibit showcases one woman’s humble 20th century immigration story

Temporary monument “bares” witness to freedom and individuality

An outdoor installation accompanies the current exhibit at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, featuring intimate items such as undergarments, perfume and eyeglasses that belonged to Sara Berman. Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

Located just steps away from where modern democracy was born, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History stands on Independence Mall in Philadelphia – the only museum that showcases the more than 360-year history of the Jews in America and traces the stories of how Jewish immigrants became Jewish Americans. Through the lives of everyday people, the Smithsonian Institution affiliate highlights American stories that transcend religion, culture and nationality.

The Museum’s latest exhibit, Sara Berman’s Closet: a small and monumental story, brings meaning to the individual with two parts – an exhibition of original works by acclaimed artist and writer Maira Kalman and designer and curator Alex Kalman, Sara Berman’s daughter and grandson, and the museum’s first-ever public art installation outside of the building at 5th and Market streets.

Through artwork, clothing, mementos and family lore, one woman’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is explored. From growing up in a shack in Belarus – to eating lemon pops on the beach in Tel Aviv – to emigrating to the United States, experience Sara’s whimsical and witty journey toward individual freedom. Sara Berman’s story connects to the Museum’s core collection and to the events of modern Jewish history and world history in the 20th century.

Sara's Dream Shack, on display at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History. Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

The temporary outdoor installation – a closet – holds intimate items such as undergarments, perfume and eyeglasses, showing the simplicity of one woman’s life, designed to focus on how one spends her time. According to Maira Kalman and Alex Kalman, the project that highlights one immigrant woman’s belongings speaks to the “universal pursuit of order, meaning, and beauty – from the monumental to the mundane.”

Sara Berman's closet on display outside the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. Photo courtesy of Mmuseumm.

This concept was first exhibited in a repurposed elevator shaft in Lower Manhattan, Mmuseumm, and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The New Yorker named Sara Berman as one of the women who shaped the art world in 2017.

Artist Maira Kalman adding additional text to the exhibit. Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

In Philadelphia, this display has been augmented and is intentionally positioned on Independence Mall, juxtaposing an individual woman’s life to that of the Founding Fathers, in a historic district that is filled with tributes to men and the activities of men. The story of one woman is and can be anyone’s story and represents what is possible when living in a country that promotes the values that were set forth in nearby Independence Hall.

Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.

Sara Berman’s Closet, on view through September 1, 2019, is part of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History’s OPEN for Interpretation program, which invites artists to provide their own perspective on the Museum’s themes through disciplines including visual art, music, dance, writing, and performance.

Upcoming events include a conversation with Isaac Mizrahi and the Kalman family, Thursday, June 27 and free admission to the NMAJH on Independence Day with Maira and Alex handing out lemon ice pops. The NMAJH is located at 101 South Independence Mall East in Philadelphia.

Photo by R. Bloom for PHLCVB.


The Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB) is the official tourism promotion agency for the City of Philadelphia globally and the primary sales and marketing agency for the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

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