December 9, 2018

LA Exhibition Spotlights the ‘Notorious RBG’

Creating a museum exhibition around a living subject can be challenging, even more so when your subject is routinely involved in shaping the course of the law. And what if the nation also happens to be laser-focused on your subject’s place of employment just as your exhibition is about to open? How do you handle that? 

It’s not such a bad problem to face, according to the curators at the Skirball Cultural Center. As the remarkable life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continues to unfold, the creators of the first exhibition celebrating Ginsburg happily grapple with the prospect of “curating in real time.” 

“Without a doubt, it’s both exciting and challenging,” said Cate Thurston, associate curator for the Skirball Cultural Center, where the exhibition “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” opens Oct. 19. “This is an ongoing story and you’re weighing, ‘How do I think this will be relevant when it opens? Does it fit in with the larger narrative that we’re telling?’ ”

Where Ginsburg is concerned, relevance has rarely been an issue. Indeed, for a couple of years, it felt like the petite, Brooklyn-born Justice with the oversized glasses had penetrated every segment of the cultural landscape. 

A Tumblr created by then-law student Shana Knizhnik as a digital tribute to Ginsburg, created the “Notorious RBG” persona. Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon wrote the 2015 coffee table biography “Notorious RBG,” which was followed by the successful 2018 documentary “RBG.” Since 2015, Kate McKinnon’s frisky, dancing Ginsburg regularly shows up on the Weekend Update section of “Saturday Night Live” to deliver withering “Gins-burns.”

The Gins-burns will keep coming. Around Christmas, “On the Basis of Sex,” a feature film based on Ginsburg’s life, is due in theaters. The film was written by Daniel Stiepleman, the nephew of Ginsburg’s late husband, Marty Ginsburg; Oscar nominee Felicity Jones will play the young Ginsburg. 

Carmon and Knizhnik have been consultants on both films as well as on the Skirball exhibition, which will be structured in the same way as their book, with sections devoted to the judge’s early life and education, her activism, her ascension through the judicial ranks and her tenure on the Supreme Court. The exhibition will also highlight the parallels between Ginsburg and the late rapper, The Notorious B.I.G. In addition to their shared geographical roots (both are from Brooklyn), RBG and the late B.I.G. had a flair for being outspoken agitators. 

Ginsburg has spent her entire life agitating on behalf of women and members of disenfranchised populations as both an attorney in front of the Supreme Court and later as a Justice. While on the bench, she wrote the majority opinion for the United States v. Virginia, which ordered the Virginia Military Institute to admit women. She famously dissented on the abortion case Gonzales v. Carhart. It was her 2013 dissent in a case gutting the Voting Rights Act that drove Knizhnik to create the Tumblr blog. That same year, Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court Justice to officiate at a same-sex wedding. 

“There is no more sterling example of someone who has helped shape our understanding of the Constitution and expand the notion of women’s roles than Justice Ginsburg,” Carmon said. “We don’t have a lot of women in positions of power who come from a place of representing the women that are not in the room,” she said.

The Skirball has obtained extensive writings and memorabilia — personal and professional — from Ginsburg’s archives. Interactive portions of the exhibit re-create Ginsburg’s Brooklyn apartment and the Supreme Court bench. Visitors can try on her robe and conjure up the feeling of being part of the highest court in the land. 

“We have tried to marry design with content in a really unique way,” Thurston said. “When you go throughout the exhibition, there are places you can touch and feel and explore. It’s almost like you are in this hyper real environment where the artifacts and the images and the AV elements are married within. We have always been very open to having playful elements in exhibitions, but that has really taken on a much more front-and-center role with this exhibition.”  

Ginsburg’s cultural background will also have a role in the exhibition. Ruth Bader (nicknamed Kiki), grew up in a conservative Jewish household in Brooklyn, the daughter of an immigrant father and a first-generation mother. She was confirmed at the East Midwood Jewish Center and served as a rabbi at her summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains. Her experiences — including not being counted among the minyan at her mother’s funeral when Ruth was 13 — have helped shape her views on discrimination, according to exhibition organizers. 

At her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993, Ginsburg pointedly told Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), “I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing … a resort with a sign out in front that read: “No dogs or Jews allowed.”

“I don’t believe she is very observantly Jewish, but she has identified very strongly with the Jewish tradition of justice and of learning,” Carmon said. 

Carmon first interviewed Ginsburg when she was covering women’s rights and the law as a reporter for MSNBC. The two women have been in regular contact through the publication of the book and as the exhibition came together. Ginsburg officiated at Carmon’s wedding and a portrait of the justice by Carmon’s husband, Ari Richter, will be on display at the Skirball. 

Carmon had long known about the impassioned, crusading Ginsburg. As their relationship developed, she said she discovered the justice’s lighter side.

“I never would have thought about or realized her sense of humor because she comes across, if you don’t know her very well, as someone who is very serious,” Carmon said. “In fact, her sense of humor is really dry and wry and subtle, but very present. I was also really surprised by her physical robustness because we tend to think of her as this tiny, elfin, weak lady.” 

However, Ginsburg has boasted of her ability to do 10 pushups at the age of 84.

“I asked her about that in my first interview,” Carmon said. “She said, ‘Yes, but we do 10. Then I take a breath and I do 10 more.’”


“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” opens at the Skirball on Oct. 19 and runs through March 10. For tickets and information, visit www.skirball.org