Illustration by Christoph Niemann for Mah Jongg: Crak, Bam, Dot, a 2wice Books publication
We opened Project Mah Jongg earlier in the week. It was, by far, the most fun we have had at any Museum opening and included the debut of a commissioned cocktail, the Mah Jongg Martini. I include below an excerpt from my remarks at the opening which address why we decided to do this exhibition.
I will admit that the reaction to the news that we were doing an exhibition about mah jongg was different than what we normally get. I am quite frankly not used to people laughing when I tell them about forthcoming projects. In the case of Project Mah Jongg, the typical conversation would go something like this:
Museum Director: “You know, we are preparing an exhibition about the game of mah jongg?
Museum Supporter (or just about anyone I would meet): [giggle] “You’re kidding me…”
And so it would go, one after another.
More often than not, however, their next comment would be something like, “I remember my mother used to play….” It became wonderfully clear very quickly that this project tapped a rich vein of nostalgia and warm memories and has proven itself to fit squarely within the mission of this Museum.
Perhaps more than any other we have undertaken, this exhibition proves that this Museum is much more about life than death. To be sure, there is a tragic history at the center of the history we present here, but the context that surrounds that history is animated by the full range of human activity and is stamped by a decided focus on vibrancy, and continuity, and, yes, joy.
In this exhibition, we explore what might be called “small history” – we do not examine world events or the actions of great men and women (the Morgenthau exhibition does that). In this exhibition, rather, we focus on the history that we all take part in, the history that defines our lives. We provide in this jewel of an exhibition a slice of Jewish history that was common to so many. And we also take a look at how history is transmitted. After all, games are about much more than simple play; they are carriers of identity, fantasy, and cultural memory, and they are important vehicles for community building and togetherness. The mah jongg game was a key opportunity for Jewish women to share stories, eat and gossip together, engage in a unique and generous philanthropy, and create life-long bonds.
As new generations learn the game today, it serves as a connector to past generations and to the memories of our mothers and grandmothers. I know that as visitors take in this exhibition, many will recall profound moments in their lives, or a time in their lives, or a person long gone but somehow still near. There is no more powerful history than that which can connect us to such potent memories.
As exhibitions go, the history of Project Mah Jongg is remarkably short. Indeed, we normally mark exhibition development in glacial time -- this one took a New York Minute --- from start to finish, about six months. But in those six months, the stars aligned just so – bringing together a constellation of remarkable talent and good will that one can only dream about.
Then I went on to thank Melissa Martens, the brilliant curator of the exhibition and Abbott Miller of Pentagram, who designed it, and my Deputy, Ivy Barsky, who oversaw the entire project. And I thanked New York Magazine for being our media partner, and Sylvia Hassenfeld for her financial support, and Ruth Unger and the National Mah Jongg League for their significant financial contribution as well as the remarkable work they have done throughout the years to preserve the game and the wonderful role it played and plays in the lives of so many.