Up until the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation-hearing hullabaloo, the most well known Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Everyone knows of the 85-year-old jurist, regardless of which side of the political divide one’s believes fall, nicknames the Notorious RBG. A new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles celebrates Ginsburg’s life and legal legacy, and how such a serious woman transformed into the Notorious RBG, a cultural icon.
“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at the Skirball is the first retrospective on the trailblazing judge. The displays are based on the New York Times bestselling book, Notorious RBG. Skirball curator Cate Thurston developed the exhibition in partnership with the book’s writers, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Through photos, documents, interactives and audio-listening stations, the shows Ginsburg’s personal experiences and public service with the legal system and civic rights issues.
The exhibition is timed with the 25th anniversary this year of her appointment to the Supreme Court, which also received attention earlier this year with the release of the documentary, “RBG,” and will in December when “On The Basis of Sex,” a movie starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, will debut.
In presenting the justice’s life and her commitment to our nation’s highest ideals Thurston hoped to demonstrate her spirit of perseverance and beliefs in the rule of law, fairness and equality. She wants the exhibit to “inspire everyone to participate in civic life and consider how the future of the judiciary impacts us all.”
From Brooklyn to Bride to the Bench
Skirball visitors are greeted in exhibit by a portrait of Ginsburg alongside one of her judicial robes with one of her trademark jabots (collars) that she lent the exhibit. Ginsburg is known for her full wardrobe of collars for court business, including ones she wears when she dissents versus ones displayed when she agrees with a decision.
Turn the corner and step back into her girlhood in Brooklyn, NY, where she was born on March 15, 1933. The display here is the first of the immersive environment areas that encourage visitors to interact with scenes from her life. This one recreates her children living room, with a portrait of her mother and Ruth’s beloved Nancy Drew books. On the wall, there is a list of “things women could not do in the 1930s and 1940s,” including practicing law in many states or even serving on a jury. Nearby displays include a baton (she was a twirler) and yearbooks from high school, college and law school, along with a paper she wrote in 8th grade exploring the relationship between the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the United Nations Charter.
There are also home videos of RBG with her husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, from their 1954 honeymoon and the early years of their marriage after earning their bachelor’s degrees. There is also a picture of Ginsburg with their daughter, who was born before law school.
Though top of her law school class, Ginsburg discovered she had three strikes against her getting a job as a woman, mother and Jew. She wound up working for the American Civil Liberties Union fighting for other women (and men) who were being discriminated against.
From 1971 to 1981 she litigated for equality as part of the ACLU Women’s Right Project. She was driven by a belief that the 14th amendment should apply to equal rights based on sex as well as equal rights based on race. One of her more famous cases from the period, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, is the basis of the film, “On the Basis of Sex.” She effectively argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of a widower who was denied Social Security survivor benefits, which were normally given to widows. She argued that gender-based distinctions, whether for women or men, violated the right to equal protection.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to bench, making her the second woman judge in federal courts. Then, in 1993, President Bill Clinton made her the second woman on the Supreme Court. Another interactive area in the exhibition is set up as Supreme Court bench with robes in adult and kid sizes as well as jabots for visitors to don and pose seated at the court.
Woven throughout the gallery are Ginsburg briefs and other writings. The most recent case shown is from this year. However, the curator and creators promise to keep updating the content based on new court activity. There are also 10 listening stations that enable visitors to listen to RBG’s oral arguments, majority opinions and colorful dissents in landmark cases.
“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” the exhibit that explores and honor the judge will be at the Skirball until March 10, 2019. It will then go on to Philadelphia; Skokee, Ill.; and then San Francisco. Other cities will be announced soon.
By Dyanne Weiss
Skirball Cultural Center Press Event Oct. 19, 2018
Skirball Cultural Center: NOTORIOUS RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
LA Times: Sky is the limit for the ‘Notorious RBG,’ and she keeps on pressin’ on
Photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Columbia Law School courtesy the Skirball.
Supreme Court photo of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg courtesy the Skirball