U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most accomplished women in America’s history and a pop-culture icon, too. She’s on T-shirts. She’s on mugs. She accessorizes her robes at the neckline with an assortment of stylish jabots that court-watchers read like tea leaves to see which way she might be leaning.
A relentless voice on the bench for women’s equality and civil rights, Ginsburg has been the subject of a best-selling book, an Emmy-winning documentary, and the Hollywood biopic On the Basis of Sex.
Now, a traveling museum exhibit inspired by and named for the book — Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — is opening at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, its first East Coast stop.
The “Notorious RBG” label, applied in admiration by authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, recognizes a history of dissent by the liberal justice in conservative-majority decisions, most notably the 2013 landmark Shelby County v. Holder invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
The exhibit uses home movies, archival documents and photographs, artwork, listening stations, and more to immerse museum visitors in Ginsburg’s life and times as they dovetail with America’s social and legal history. Visitors are guided by signage that includes Ginsburg’s own remarks and variations on Notorious B.I.G. lyrics, including "stereotypes of a woman misunderstood“ and "my team supreme.”
These are five highlights that may surprise even die-hard RBG superfans:
Fiery dissents, on tape
At listening stations, museum visitors can hear Ginsburg speak in interviews and in recorded readings of court decisions. These include her fiery dissent in 2007′s Ledbetter v. Goodyear case about disparities in men’s and women’s pay, and the dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore. (“The majority has acted unwisely.”)
Less-famous documents to savor
One delightful document on display is a pointed response by Ginsburg to a fund-raising appeal from Columbia Law School, her alma mater. Ginsburg, who graduated first in her class in 1959, has edited the original fund-raising letter in pen, adding “or her” in two places where the letter says just “him.”
In an accompanying note, she writes: “The suggested amendments marked in red on the enclosures might stimulate women graduates to respond more favorably to your fund appeals."
Two off-bench outfits
Ginsburg and her ideological adversary Justice Antonin Scalia were famously friends in their off hours, bonding over a shared love for opera. The two appeared together in 1994 as extras in the Washington National Opera’s opening night production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. And Ginsburg appeared on her own, nine months after Scalia’s death, as the Duchess of Krankenthorp in the November 2016 production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of Regiment. Her costume from that glittery cameo is on display here.
The exhibit also includes an A-line sweater dress and sensible low-heeled pumps worn by Felicity Jones in her role as Ginsburg in On The Basis of Sex.
Snapshots and snippets from Ginsburg’s home life
Even titans of the judiciary are human beings, and this exhibit brings that home with photos from Ginsburg’s childhood, home movies with her beloved husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, who died in 2010, and more. Also here: An indelibly goofy color snapshot of Ginsburg and her buddy Scalia riding an elephant.
Aspirational (and Instagrammable) garb
Photography is not allowed in the main exhibit, but you can still snag the perfect selfie. Downstairs, on the museum’s concourse level, visitors can try on judicial robes and jabots (available in adult and child sizes) and pose at a reproduction of the Supreme Court bench. On the first floor, you can take selfies in front of the “notorious wall,” which has artwork from the book cover and more props to pose with. Choose from a gavel or RBG eyeglasses.
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Through Jan. 12, 2020, at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 5th and Market Streets. Notorious RBG book authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik visit for a talk Dec. 15.
Tickets: $9 for exhibit (free for children under 13), general museum admission free for all.
Information: 215-923-3811 or nmajh.org