Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was born in Toronto, Ontario, and raised in Toronto's downtown immigrant neighborhood during the immediate postwar years. Both of her parents were Jewish and were born and raised in Poland. Her mother came to Canada from Brześć Litewski in 1929 and her father from Opatów in 1934. She attended Orde Street Public School and Northview Heights Collegiate, as well as the Farband Shule, Peretz Shule, and D’Arcy Talmud Torah. She lived in Israel during 1961-1962 and studied at an ulpan, worked on Kibbutz Revivim, taught manual training to boys with learning disabilities in Tel Aviv, and conducted research on textiles in Jerusalem. Upon her return to Toronto, she began her university studies and academic career. She married the artist Max Gimblett in 1964. They have lived and worked in the United States since 1965.
An honors English major at the University of Toronto from 1962–1965, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with an A.B. and M.A. in English literature in 1966 and 1967 respectively. She received her PhD in 1972 from Indiana University, Bloomington, where she studied folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, sociolinguistics, and material culture under esteemed folklorist Richard Dorson.
She has held faculty appointments at the University of Texas at Austin (English Literature and Anthropology), Columbia University (Linguistics and Yiddish Studies), University of Pennsylvania (Folklore and Folklife), and New York University (Performance Studies) since 1981. She is currently University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, where she chaired her department for more than a decade. She is also Affiliated Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies in the Graduate School of Arts and Science. She teaches courses on the aesthetics of everyday life, world's fairs, museums, and tourism, food as a performing art, and Jewish culture. She has served on advisory committees for six interdepartmental programs, including Museum Studies, American Studies, Liberal Studies, Metropolitan Studies, Religious Studies, and Asian/Pacific/American Studies. She co-convened, with Jeffrey Shandler, the Working Group on Jews, Media, and Culture at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media for more than five years.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett served as President of the American Folklore Society from 1988 to 1992 and as the AFS delegate to the American Council of Learned Societies. She serves (or recently served) on boards and advisory committees for the following institutions: Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities; Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution; Stanford Humanities Center; Association for Museum History; the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College; Association for Jewish Studies Executive Board and AJS Women’s Caucus; the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts; Social Science Research Council; and International Center for Advanced Studies, New York University, among others. She was admitted, by invitation, to the American Academy for Jewish Research and the Society of American Historians. She currently serves on the Academic Advisory Council of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has served or currently serves on editorial boards for such journals as Museum and Society, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Museum Worlds, Museum Anthropology, Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage, Journal of the History of Collections, Tourist Studies, Contemporary Jewry, Jewish Cultural Studies, Journal of Yiddish Research, Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Journal of Folklore Research, Narodna umjetnost: Croatian Journal of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Senses & Society, TDR The Drama Review, Text and Performance: A Journal of Performance Studies, All about Jewish Theater, Postmodern Culture, Gastronomica, and Cuizine. She has served or currently serves on the editorial boards of such book series as California Studies in Food and Culture (University of California Press), Jewish Folklore and Ethnography (Wayne State University Press), and Jewish Cultural Studies (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization). She served on the editorial boards of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Encyclopedia of Jewish Folklore, and Encyclopedia of Food and Culture.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has served or is currently serving as a consultant internationally for many museums, exhibition projects, and cultural festivals among them Beth Hatefutsoth: Museum of Jewish Peoplehood (Tel Aviv), Jewish Museum Berlin, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D.C.), Yeshiva University Museum (New York), The Jewish Museum (New York), Skirball Museum (Los Angeles), National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia), Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership(Chicago), Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), National September 11 Memorial & Museum (New York), Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), and the Los Angeles Festival, among others. She currently serves on the Advisory Board for the Jewish Museum Vienna and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
She has curated exhibitions for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, The Jewish Museum (New York), and the Smithsonian Institution, and published extensively on museums, most recently in Nowa (2011). She is a member of ICOM, UNESCO’s International Council of Museums, CAJM, Council of American Jewish Museums, and AEJM Association of European Jewish Museums.
In 2006, after consulting for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews for several years, she agreed to lead the team developing the Core Exhibition, a multimedia narrative experience dedicated to the 1000-year history of Polish Jews.
They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, which she coauthored with her father Mayer Kirshenblatt, was accompanied by an exhibition of the paintings and a documentary film, Paint What You Remember. The book won three awards, two of them Canadian Jewish Book Awards, and was a finalist in three categories for the National Jewish Book Award. The film records Mayer Kirshenblatt's return to his hometown, Opatów, with his family and the warm reception he and his memories received from those living there today. The exhibition, which opened at the Magnes Museum (Berkeley, California) in 2007, traveled to The Jewish Museum (New York) and the Jewish Historical Museum (Amsterdam). The audio guide received a 2010 MUSE award from the American Association of Museums in recognition of outstanding achievement in the use of digital media “to enhance the museum experience and engage audiences.” A print version of the exhibition was shown in Opatów and at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz/Kraków. Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, to which Kirshenblatt-Gimblett contributed, coincides with the period of Kirshenblatt’s youth in Poland.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is the author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (University of California Press, 1998). She co-authored The Israel Experience: Studies in Youth Travel and Jewish Identity with Harvey Goldberg and Samuel Heilman (Jerusalem: Studio Kavgraph, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, 2002). Her edited books include Writing Modern Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Salo W. Baron (Yale University Press, 2006), which won a National Jewish Book Award; The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times (co-edited with Jonathan Karp) (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations (co-edited with Ivan Karp and Corinne Kratz et al.) (Duke University Press, 2006); Art from Start to Finish (co-edited with Howard Becker and Robert Faulkner, University of Chicago Press, 2005), and Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (co-edited with Jeffrey Shandler) (Indiana University Press, 2012).
Her earlier books include Image before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939, with Lucjan Dobroszycki (Schocken, reissued 1995), which was accompanied by a landmark exhibition for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at The Jewish Museum and feature documentary film (recently reissued on DVD). Her other publications include Speech Play: Research and Resources for Linguistic Creativity (editor and contributor); Fabric of Jewish Life: Textiles from the Jewish Museum Collection (in collaboration with Cissy Grossman); Authoring Lives; and numerous articles.
In 2017, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, she received the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland from the President of Poland, an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Marshall Sklare award for her contributions to the social scientific study of Jewry. In 2008, she was honored with the Foundation for Jewish Culture award for lifetime achievement and the Mlotek Prize for Yiddish and Yiddish Culture, and was selected for the Forward 50, which celebrates leadership, creativity, and impact. She was designated Distinguished Humanist for 2003 by the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University and honored with the Shofar Award of the 25th Annual Jewish Music Festival in 2010.
Previous awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities. She was a Getty Scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1991-1992, in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Conference and Study Center in 1991, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1995, a Winston Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1996, a University of Auckland Foundation Visitor in 1998, a fellow at SCASSS (Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences) in Uppsala in 1998, and a resident research fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001.
In October 2014, she was quoted in a New York Times article as saying that postwar Poland was an "anomaly" because of its relative homogeneity explaining, correctly, that “[n]ever was Poland as homogeneous, linguistically and ethnically, as it is today.”
This was picked up by some Polish commentators with indignation and interpreted as a sign that POLIN Museum was calling for increased immigration of non-Poles to Poland and/or promotion of so-called "multiculturalism."