For The First Time In Its History, The All Electric House At the Johnson County Museum Will Celebrate Passover
The Johnson County Museum's Christmas decorations have delighted visitors since 1999. Now, a table set for a Seder and other Judaic pieces mark its first celebration of a non-Christian religious holiday.
Each December since 1999, Johnson County Museum staff members have decked out the 1950s All Electric House in mid-century Christmas splendor. Cookie cutters lie on the kitchen counter, a red velvet dress rests on a child’s bed and an aluminum Christmas tree stands at the ready in the living room.
Until now, the house’s pretend family has never celebrated a non-Christian holiday. This spring it will celebrate Passover in partnership with Overland Park temple B’nai Jehudah and Michael Klein’s extensive collection of Judaica.
“I think it makes so much sense to have a Passover Seder in this house, because Passover is always a holiday that you celebrate at home — this year especially, since we’re all at home,” says Abby Magariel, Klein Collection educator and curator.
From its inception in the early 1950s, the home’s purpose has been to educate. Commissioned by Kansas City Power & Light and completed in 1954, for six months the house showcased the wonders of electricity and informed the public about a future of modern convenience.
Between its stint as a model home and its return to modeling at the museum in 1994, the house stood at 4602 Homestead Drive in Prairie Village and a succession of actual families lived in it.
Because those families were white and Christian, and because for a time that demographic was hyper-dominant in Johnson County, the house reflected that.
But museum director Mary McMurray knew it could do more.
She says, “There are holidays year-round and multiple communities that live here in Johnson County, so how else can we use this house to represent a mid-century family during this time period?”
The purpose of the museum has always been to both educate and reflect Johnson Countians, a northeastern Kansas county of 600,000, which, according to 2019 U.S. Census records, is 87% white. The current Jewish population of the Kansas City metro is estimated at 20,000, most of whom live in Johnson County.
Magariel says setting the house’s table for Passover helps tell an important story. For many years, restrictive covenants in some of the county’s communities barred the Jewish population from buying property, yet the first synagogue in the county opened in the late 1950s.
“I’m glad this is being acknowledged, that this history is being told,” Magariel says.
McMurray says that the museum strives for inclusivity but, ironically, until it connects with the populations it wishes to include, representation in the collection is limited.
For instance, a recent quilt exhibition at the museum told the story of Johnson County women through their quilts—which were all donated. The exhibition didn’t include any quilts made by the non-white population simply because no one had donated one.
“Being able to tell those stories requires partnerships, requires learning on our part, and we hope that everyone sees that we are actively working on telling the best story that we can to represent our population,” McMurray says.
Fortunately, she adds, Kansas City’s museum community is more collaborative than competitive, so finding a partner in the Klein Collection was not difficult.
Klein, the retired president of U.S. Toy, has collected Judaica for 40 years, always with an eye toward education. For decades, he displayed the collection in his home in Prairie Village, which limited its reach.
He moved the collection to B’nai Jehudah at 123rd and Nall Avenue as part of its renovation, completed in late 2019. Once COVID restrictions lift, the display will be open to the public.
Magariel says, “When I told Michael Klein about this exhibit—he grew up here—he said, ‘Oh, I went and visited that house when it opened.’”
A few pieces from Klein’s collection are encased just outside of the house: a large illustrated version of the Passover Haggadah — a Jewish text recounting the ancient Israelites’ enslavement in and exodus from Egypt — by the late artist Ben Shahn, and two mid-century ceramic Seder plates.
Inside the house, the dining table is set with a Seder plate on loan from B’nai Jehudah and rarely seen replicas of place settings that were in the house during its time as a model home, before the first family moved in.
The Seder plate is laden with traditional symbolic foods that participants eat during the reading of the Haggadah: an egg to symbolize springtime; fresh horseradish to symbolize the bitterness of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt; a green vegetable, such as celery, to symbolize the new year, dipped in saltwater to symbolize the tears shed by the Jews; a small bowl of apples, nuts, cinnamon and honey to represent the mortar Israelite slaves used to build in Egypt; and a shank bone to symbolize the blood of a lamb that was smeared over the doors of households so that the angel of death would pass over Israelite households.
Magariel hopes the display will educate and engage the museum’s visitors. “The more people that are engaged, the more fun it is, and the more stories you can tell. That’s what makes it rich.”
The Passover exhibition runs from Friday, March 26 through Saturday, May 1 during the museum’s regular business hours.
At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31, Abby Magariel and a rabbi from B’Nai Jehudah will host a free virtual program called “Passover Traditions.” To register, call 913-831-3359 or click here.