First, there was the Tumblr site featuring snippets of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions and “RBG Y’ALL” T-shirts. The site dubbed the Supreme Court Justice “Notorious RBG,” a nod to the late rapper Biggie Smalls, a.k.a the Notorious B.I.G. Then came the book of the same name, followed by the documentary, “RBG,” and soon-to-debut film, “On The Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Bader Ginsburg. Not to mention the bobbleheads in black robes, the fitness regime and the online petition for a Ben & Jerry’s “Ruth Bader Ginger” ice cream flavor. The dissent collar is practically de rigueur.
The latest in RBG fever: The first museum exhibition about the justice’s life and work, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” opening Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibition, co-organized by Skirball associate curator Cate Thurston and the book’s co-authors, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (the latter founded the Tumblr site), marks the 25th anniversary of Bader Ginsburg’s 1993 appointment to the Supreme Court. It features personal photographs and home movies, archival documents and artifacts, contemporary art and more. The exhibition is organized into sections titled with the Notorious B.I.G’s hip-hop lyrics: “I got a story to tell” covers her early life and education; “Stereotypes of a lady misunderstood” delves into RBG’s activism.
The idea, says Thurston, is both to celebrate the pioneering feminist judge’s life and career as well as “tell a larger story about the expansion of civil rights throughout the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries,” she says. “So we’re focused in on Justice Ginsburg’s life but teasing out key moments in American history.”
Toward that end, Bader Ginsburg’s yearbook photos from high school through law school are on view, as is a 1938 letter from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to African American civil rights activist Pauli Murray. There’s also architect Cass Gilbert’s 1928 pen sketch of the supreme court, as it’s being built, on the back of a concert program; Bader Ginsburg’s personal robe and jabot; home movies of Bader Ginsburg and her late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, honeymooning in Venice, Italy. Perhaps most poignant is the letter “Marty” left Bader Ginsburg shortly before he passed away in 2010, expressing his love and pride for her.
Many of the items on display are embedded in immersive, interactive environments recreating key locations in Bader Ginsburg’s life. The living room in the Brooklyn row house Bader Ginsburg grew up in is filled with family photos and her favorite books while one of her favorite operas plays on an antique radio. Visitors can watch home movies of Bader Ginsburg and her husband inside a re-creation of the ‘50s-era Chevrolet he owned when the couple dated at Cornell University, or they can try on a judge’s robe while sitting on a re-creation of her Supreme Court bench.
Set against today’s news cycle, the exhibition — and Bader Ginsburg’s message — is not only timely but also has pronounced resonance, Thurston says.
“When we pitched this in 2016, it was a celebration of a feminist jurist who really embraces our core values — at the Skirball, we’re devoted to exploring the intersection of American democracy and Jewish values,” Thurston says. “And I think it is still all those things, but there’s an urgency now to her message, and the message of the exhibition, which is ‘work hard, stay the course, things will be difficult, but that doesn’t mean they’re hopeless.’
“And Ruth Ginsburg is pure work; when things are difficult, you have to buckle down and keep going,” Thurston adds. “That takeaway from her life feels really relevant. No matter how tense the present can feel, work matters. Staying the course has an impact.”
‘Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
When: Friday through March 10, 2019. Closed Mondays
Info: (310) 440-4500, skirball.org